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Wisconsin 2020 alcohol death rates highest on record

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As the pandemic raged, people lost jobs and stress increased, more Wisconsinites died in 2020 from alcohol than in any other year on record.

Deaths directly related to alcohol rose nearly 25% in Wisconsin in 2020, the biggest one-year increase in over two decades, a new Wisconsin Policy Forum report found.

In today’s Daily Dose of Sunshine, Dr. E. talks about how to be aware of alcohol abuse during the pandemic.

In 2020, 1,077 Wisconsinites died from alcohol-induced causes — defined in the report as deaths directly attributable to alcohol, not deaths where alcohol was only a factor — up from 865 in 2019. And Wisconsin’s 18.5-per-100,000 alcohol-induced death rate in 2020 was 25% higher than the nationwide rate.

The drastic increase coincides with the first year of the pandemic, but yearly alcohol-related deaths more than doubled from 2010 to 2020.

While drinking rates are up across all demographic groups, the policy forum found the highest increase among Black and middle-aged Wisconsinites.

In Wisconsin, the report found, Black people are dying from alcohol at rates only lower than in Colorado, New Mexico and Nebraska.

Nationally, 10 per every 100,000 Black people die each year from alcohol-induced deaths. But in Wisconsin, that number in 2020 was 15.6, down from a record-high in 2019 of 17.

Among middle-aged populations, too, alcohol-related death rates in Wisconsin far exceed national averages. In 1999, 15.9 per every 100,000 Americans aged 45 to 64 died each year from alcohol. In 2020, that number rose to 41.3.

High binge-drinking rates and alcohol death rates may continue, the report noted, as long as Wisconsin continues to tax alcohol at low rates.

Alcohol taxes in Wisconsin are based on the volume of beverage sold, with beer taxed at about 6.5 cents per gallon and hard liquor taxed at $3.25 per gallon. Wine is taxed at 25 cents per gallon if the alcohol content is 14% or less by volume and 45 cents per gallon for wines with a higher alcohol content. Hard cider is taxed at 6 cents per gallon if the alcohol content is less than 7%, and if higher it is taxed the same as wine.

Those taxes are each among the 10 lowest nationwide, the tax policy-focused Tax Foundation reported, and those low taxes are associated with high consumption rates.

“While it would likely be politically unpopular, this suggests that Wisconsin policymakers may want to consider whether current alcohol taxation rates should be revisited,” the report states.

The largest annual alcohol tax increase between 2009 and 2020 was only 2.4%.

Cited in the latest report, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services brief also suggested reducing the hours in a day when alcohol could be sold, limiting the number of liquor licenses sold and imposing maximum blood alcohol content laws below the current 0.08% for drivers.

In 2019, Wisconsin ranked third in the nation in terms of the percentage of adults — 64.4% — who drink alcohol, higher than the neighboring states of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan, according to the state Department of Health Services. Wisconsin adults who drink consume an average of 2.6 drinks per occasion, higher than adults in other states.

The UW-Madison Population Health Institute reported in 2019 that binge drinking in Wisconsin costs almost $4 billion a year, or about $700 per state resident.


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