Our Views: Buying alcohol shouldn’t be this convenient

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Flip through the pages of this newspaper (or scroll online), and there’s a good chance you’ll find a story about someone who faces a third, fourth, fifth ... maybe even a 10th drunken-driving offense.

The mugshot parade is mind numbing, and any sense of shock probably wore off long ago for most readers. The sad truth is we mostly accept the consequences of drunken driving as an unavoidable, if unfortunate, part of life.

But should we accept the consequences? Should we tolerate alcohol abuse and the evils that stem from it?

An area of local concern is the growing number of gas stations selling beer and wine. Throughout the state, too many communities have repealed long-standing bans on alcohol sales at gas stations, and this trend has been unfortunately playing out in Milton.

The Milton City Council approved an alcohol license for Casey’s General Store this month, but a precedent-setting decision occurred in 2010 when the city granted the Milton Travel Mart a license. Then in 2014, Kwik Trip received an alcohol license. In 2016, the city denied Casey’s request, but the company prevailed after suing the city.

(To Milton’s credit, it prohibited Casey’s from displaying outdoor signs referring to alcohol because of the building’s proximity to Milton High School and another facility used by student athletes.)

We empathize with Milton’s desire to grow its tax base in the face of strict levy limits imposed by the state. Milton is not alone in falling for the tactics of large convenience store chains, which come to city councils promising to grow the tax base and create jobs on the condition they be allowed to sell alcohol. Cities struggling to raise revenues find the offer irresistible, though they downplay the cost of linking revenue growth to alcohol sales.

A 2013 study, “The Burden of Excessive Alcohol Use in Wisconsin,” shows alcohol-related problems, from health care issues to lost worker productivity, cost the state $6.8 billion each year, or about $1,200 per person. Expanding alcohol sales might generate more revenue, but alcohol-related problems strain public safety budgets.

If we’re to bring under control this state’s drinking problem, communities must acknowledge the costs of promoting alcohol consumption. The practice of selling alcohol at gas stations sends a terrible message to residents, linking two things that should remain far apart in our collective psychology: drinking and driving.

We need to stop portraying easy access to alcohol as normal. Buying alcohol shouldn’t be this convenient.

“What we’ve created in Wisconsin is an over-concentration of alcohol outlets,” Julia Sherman, coordinator of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said in an interview with The Gazette last week.

But not every state—even in the Midwest—is so carefree with booze. In Minnesota, for example, many municipalities operate government liquor stores and impose tight restrictions on sales at other sites. Grocery stores in Minnesota are allowed to sell only 3.2-percent beer, and only recently did Minnesota start allowing Sunday liquor sales.

Sherman said communities have options for regulating alcohol, and she plans to speak to local officials through a training session sponsored by the Rock County Prevention Network on Tuesday, Aug. 8. We encourage local officials to attend and ask themselves whether their cities, towns or villages can do more to fight alcohol abuse. We suspect most probably can.

Communities are not powerless to change Wisconsin drinking culture.

“The culture isn’t something that fell on us like an asteroid out of the sky,” Sherman said. “We are the culture. We create the culture.”

Yes, we can change the culture.

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