Eau Claire County ranks second worst in Wisconsin for binge drinking

Do UW Health’s study findings reflect UW-Eau Claire student drinking patterns?


Photo by Kendall Ruchti

With the warm weather that hit Eau Claire last weekend came a rise in high-risk drinking and loud partying for some students. Eau Claire County ranked second worst in the state for binge drinking, according to a recent study by UW Health.

In a new study released by UW Health, Eau Claire County ranked second worst in the state for binge drinking — only .01 percent better than the worst: St. Croix County.

The annual county rankings found 27 percent of adults in Eau Claire County reported binge drinking last year, three percent higher than the state average and a striking 10 percent higher than the national average (of 17 percent).

Wisconsin has been known to have more prevalent binge drinking for years, said UW-Eau Claire Chief of Police David Sprick, but he was surprised to hear Eau Claire County ranked so high statewide.

“It is somewhat surprising, somewhat distressing given the efforts that our community and our campus have devoted toward awareness education,” Sprick said.

Despite Eau Claire County’s binge drinking rates, Sprick said he suspects the issue is not just limited to the student population but throughout the whole area.

During the 2015-16 fiscal year, campus police issued 78 underage citations, 18 arrests for operating a vehicle while intoxicated (OWI) and assisted in 19 detox cases, according to campus police statistics. Sprick said there is still more work to be done.


While recent years have seen a slight drop in high-risk drinking, Sprick said the increased awareness often correlates with community tragedy.

For example, when someone drowns, the dangers of binge drinking gain more awareness and attention in the media, he said.

“Sadly, sometimes if and when a tragedy occurs, i.e. someone drowns, then there’s of course kind of a spike in awareness, attention and publicity about high-risk drinking,” Sprick said. “Then sadly that sort of level of attention will fade somewhat until the next one.”

Wisconsin has struggled with high binge drinking rates for a number of years with few signs of improving. The state ranked highest in the nation for binge drinking from 2011-2012, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. In 2014, the state had dropped to third.

Katie Wilson, Eau Claire campus health educator, said it’s important to recognize there is a wide spectrum when it comes to alcohol use.

“I like to use the term risky drinking or high-risk drinking because the truth is a lot of people are using [alcohol] in really risky ways but they don’t meet the criteria for alcoholism,” Wilson said. “So they’re not dependent on alcohol but they’re still drinking in ways that put them at risk for a lot of things to happen.”

When it comes to Eau Claire students, Wilson said education can be helpful but the student’s living environment also plays a major role in preventing high-risk drinking.

Campus officials may be able to have a handle on on-campus problems related to alcohol, but many students end up living off-campus, which requires the university and the community to work together.

“We’re an institute of higher education and I think we tend to kind of think, ‘how can we educate people to change their behaviors?’” Wilson said, “and the truth is that we can do the e-checkup and some of the other things, but a lot of it is the environment and what policies we set.”

While many students are capable of graduating and having a healthy relationship with alcohol, Wilson said some students focus too much on just the health effects and not long-term effects of excessive drinking can have on other aspects of life.

Today, an underage citation, OWI or disorderly conduct can affect employment options for years to come, she said.

However, Wilson insisted alcohol is something people struggle with in general and the media plays a role through movies and advertising in creating a dangerous drinking environment for all ages.

“I think it would be totally unfair to call it just a college issue,” she said.

Last Thursday Dean of Students Joseph Abhold sent an email to the campus addressing the increase in off-campus partying following a weekend of warm weather.

Abhold said the Eau Claire Police Department (ECPD) had experienced a high volume of complaints and issued a number of citations for underage drinking and loud partying.

When speaking with Abhold, he said his biggest concern is that things can get worse before the end of the semester.

“We haven’t had an alcohol related tragedy with the student body in a while, and that’s something that I’m profoundly concerned about,” Abhold said. “I just want students to be thoughtful and to watch out for themselves and their friends … I know our students are smart people.”

Unfortunately, he said, a relatively small number of students are going out and being disrespectful and making bad choices that impact how people perceive all college students.

Junior nursing student, Megan Schroeder, knows firsthand how living around loud partying can have an impact.

Living on Water Street above a local business, Schroeder said noise is a major issue, especially on Wednesdays and Thursdays when normally there shouldn’t be that much going on.

“It kind of stinks because I then have to change my schedule to study outside of my apartment and to be on campus instead of studying at home,” she said, “and with that, just not getting sleep.”

The social tradition and history of glorifying high-risk drinking in college, Abhold said, contributes to student perceptions and impacts the drinking culture on college campuses.

“The state of Wisconsin has a problem with respect to its culture surrounding drinking,” Abhold said. “You don’t see the same level of pushing drinks and equating drinks with hospitality in the same way you see it here.”

On  campus, Abhold said, there are plenty of things to do that don’t involve drinking, it just takes a bit of planning.  And most students “get over” excessive drinking while progressing through college.

But for those who don’t, the campus has a number of services meant to assist them through student health services and counseling services.