As the nation’s top party school prepares for its annual spring bash, with no campus-sanctioned alternative event this year, there are signs that heavy drinking among UW-Madison students may be declining.

Thirty-six percent of freshmen said last fall they were binge drinkers, down from 42 percent in 2013. The university had 984 alcohol misconduct incidents last fall, down from 1,513 four years earlier.

“I’d be cautious in saying that we’ve seen a huge shift in high-risk drinking,” said Jenny Rabas, who coordinates efforts to reduce alcohol and other drug abuse for University Health Services. “I think we’ve seen some things to be optimistic about and to keep monitoring.”

Wisconsin remains the top binge drinking state among adults and young adults, but heavy drinking among teens is down, according to the latest state-by-state figures from 2013-14.

“We might be experiencing a bit of a cultural shift,” said Dr. Richard Brown, a substance abuse expert at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “But binge drinking remains very much a cultural norm in Wisconsin.”

Binge drinking — five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women, in about two hours — can lead to injuries, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies, chronic diseases and other problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Saturday, many of the 43,000 students at UW-Madison, named the No. 1 party school last year by the Princeton Review, are expected to attend the raucous Mifflin Street Block Party.

The event, which started in 1969 as a protest against the Vietnam War, is known today for daylong keggers on the 400 and 500 blocks of West Mifflin Street. It is held prior to the last week of classes.

Revelry, an alternative event that started in 2013 and was more controlled, won’t take place this year. A Wisconsin Union committee ended the event after turnout plummeted last year, when the administration cut off funding.

But other efforts at the university to address binge drinking appear to be having an effect.

AlcoholEdu, a required online education program for first-year students, started in 2013. It aims to help students make well-informed decisions about alcohol, link drinking choices to academic and personal success and cope with drinking by peers.

In 2014, the university started Badgers Step Up!, a two-hour program that focuses on norms of alcohol use and intervening when people drink too much. Fraternity and sorority members, second-year varsity athletes and a member from every registered student organization must participate.

Badgers Step Up!

At a recent Badgers Step Up! session, student facilitators Kyra Stone and Megan Zanillo discussed the alcohol content of various drinks, alcohol’s positive and negative effects and ways to distract people who are drunk from drinking more.

“Take them to Ian’s Pizza,” one student said.

“Yes, food is a huge one; everyone likes to eat,” Stone said.

The facilitators presented scenarios, including one in which someone is seen on Snapshot drinking and yelling while wearing a T-shirt with a student organization logo.

Stone said organization leaders, when handing out T-shirts, should tell members to be careful about their behavior when they wear the shirts.

“I’m definitely going to implement that T-shirt rule,” said Thanh Phuong Nguyen, an 18-year-old freshman from Fort Atkinson, who attended the session as a member of Game Design and Development, a video game club.

Mike Smale, a 20-year-old sophomore from West Bend, was at the session because he started the Wisconsin Exploration Club. He said he didn’t think Wisconsin’s drinking culture was unusual until he visited Minnesota, where students seemed to drink less.

“Maybe we do have a little difference with drinking and how people go out,” Smale said.

Carter Kofman, a 22-year-old senior from Glencoe, Illinois, is chairman of Live Free, an organization for students in recovery from substance abuse.

Kofman left UW-Madison as a sophomore to get treatment for alcohol addiction. When he returned in 2015, he found the campus to be an “abstinence-hostile environment,” he said.

“The drinking culture is just pervasive,” Kofman said. Students should realize that “there are people around them who can’t moderate,” he said.

Wisconsin’s

drinking culture

Brown said heavy drinking in the state is entrenched. “Binge drinking has been so ingrained into the white mainstream culture for so long,” he said. “As people get to drinking age, it’s just natural to emulate slightly older people.”

The state could curb binge drinking by raising the price of alcohol, letting local police screen motorists for drunken driving and encouraging more health care providers to ask patients about high-risk drinking, he said.

Among 17 states and the District of Columbia, which were measured by the percentage of doctors who ask patients about high-risk drinking and advise heavy drinkers to reduce their consumption, Wisconsin was third to last, the CDC said last month.

“Providers may have lower concern about binge drinking as a reflection of our drinking culture,” Brown said.

More than 32 percent of Wisconsin adults said they were binge drinkers in 2013-14, the highest of any state, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Only the District of Columbia was higher.

More than 50 percent of Wisconsin residents ages 18 to 25 said they were binge drinkers, the highest among all states and D.C.

Among residents ages 12 to 17, Wisconsin ranked sixth, with 7 percent saying they were binge drinkers. A related survey of youth drinking put Wisconsin on top from 2001 to 2007 — but by 2013, the state was below the national average for current drinking, binge drinking and initiation of drinking before age 13.

Linda Seemeyer, secretary of the state Department of Health Services, highlighted the teen trend in a statement this month.

“This data shows we have reason to be optimistic that we are making progress in our efforts to curb Wisconsin’s drinking culture, beginning with our young people,” Seemeyer said.

“This data shows we have reason to be optimistic that we are making progress in our efforts to curb Wisconsin’s drinking culture, beginning with our young people.” Linda Seemeyer, secretary of the state Department of Health Services
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David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.