Underage Drinking

The age at which an individual can consume or purchase alcoholic beverages legally in Wisconsin is 21. The consumption and purchase of alcoholic beverages by individuals younger than 21 are health and safety hazards.

Why do Youth and Young Adults Drink Alcohol?

  • It is available.
  • It is what their friends are doing.
  • It is accepted in their community.
  • It relieves stress and helps them cope with mental health challenges.
  • It provides a sensational high.

Youth and Young Adults Drink Alcohol Less Often Than Adults, But Binge Drink More

Drinking a lot of alcohol in a short period of time is known as binge drinking. In clinical terms, binge drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking that brings an individual's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent and above. This typically happens when a male consumes five or more drinks within two hours and a female consumes four or more drinks within two hours.

Wisconsin is one of the top 10 states for the number of youth and young adults who binge drink. While underage binge drinking happens daily, it is common during spring break and the prom and graduation seasons.

Dangers of Underage Drinking

The impact of underage drinking is enormous for youth, young adults, and all Wisconsin residents.

Health and Safety Impacts

Alcohol is a factor in the deaths of more than 4,300 youth and young adults each year.

  • 1,580 deaths from motor vehicle crashes
  • 1,269 from homicides
  • 245 from alcohol poisoning, falls, burns, and drowning
  • 492 from suicides

Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Behavioral and Learning Impacts

Brain development is not complete until an individual is well into their 20s. Alcohol can alter the development of the brain. Youth and young adults who drink are more likely to have behavioral problems in school, which may lead to poor academic performance, suspensions, and expulsions. Additionally, youth or young adults who start drinking before the age of 15 are six times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder later in life compared to their peers who begin drinking at or after the age of 21.

Legal Impacts

In Wisconsin, individuals under the age of 21 who are caught purchasing or attempting to purchase alcohol, consuming alcohol (with the exception of being accompanied by a parent, legal guardian, or spouse age 21 or older), or falsifying their age may be fined up to $500. First-time offenders also face a suspension of their driver's license.

Adults who are not the minor's parent, legal guardian, or spouse (such as an older sibling or other relative) may be fined up to $500 for failing to take action to prevent underage drinking. Adults who provide alcohol to minors may be fined up to $500. 

Preventing and Reducing Underage Drinking

The prevention of underage drinking is one of five priorities identified in the Wisconsin Epidemiological Profile on Alcohol and Other Drugs, 2016.

Changing the Alcohol Environment

Addressing the acceptability, availability, attractiveness, and affordability of alcohol is a proven strategy to address unhealthy use of alcohol by youth and young adults. View a report (PDF, 857 KB) of the State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse regarding changing Wisconsin's alcohol environment to save lives.

Acceptability

Acceptability refers to the community's culture, perceptions, values, and norms regarding the use of alcohol. Alcohol consumption in Wisconsin is higher than other states. Because alcohol consumption is considered part of the fabric of daily living here, it is more likely that if they have the opportunity, minors will drink.

What can you do?

  • Talk to minors about the dangers of underage drinking.
  • Establish and enforce rules prohibiting alcohol use by minors.
  • Encourage college students to host parties without alcohol.

Resources

Affordability

Affordability refers to the price of alcohol. Alcohol is one of the most affordable addictive drugs.

What can you do?

  • Talk with local, state, and federal policymakers about ways to make alcohol less affordable.
  • Encourage business owners to discontinue "buy one, get one free" offers and similar pricing promotions.

Attractiveness

Attractiveness refers to the positive image of alcohol use often portrayed in the marketing of alcohol products. In Wisconsin, alcohol advertising is visible in places where youth and and young adults easily see it.

What can you do?

  • Talk with local policymakers about bans on alcohol advertising on buses, at parks, and in other public spaces.
  • Tell youth and young adults that deciding not to drink alcohol is a healthy choice.

Resources

Availability

Availability refers to the ease and convenience of obtaining alcohol. In Wisconsin, cities, villages, and towns have a significant amount of control over local availability.

What can you do?

  • Talk with local policymakers about making age-compliance checks of alcohol retailers a routine practice.
  • Talk with local policymakers about increasing enforcement against alcohol retailers who sell to minors.
  • Attend community meetings regarding applications to sell and/or serve alcohol and express concerns about the impact of another alcohol establishment.

Most youth and young adults in Wisconsin get their alcohol either from their homes or the homes of their friends. Adults should always ensure that their alcohol is stored in a locked area.

Last Revised: May 15, 2017