Wisconsin’s confusing law when it comes to underage drinking

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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) —  Underage drinking in Wisconsin is an issue. But believe it or not, you don’t necessarily have to be 21 to legally down a drink in a bar or restaurant. Kris Schuller investigates this loophole in the nation’s top binge drinking state.  

In the state of Wisconsin, the minimum legal drinking age is 21 years old.  But tucked away inside the alcohol laws of the state is an exception to that rule, which may surprise many. Which allows anyone, of any age under 21, to drink alcohol in a bar or restaurant – under certain situations. 

“It’s a law that’s out there, that not many people are aware of or even realize or it is misinterpreted and not really clear on what that law even means,” said Capt. Dan Sandberg of the Brown County Sheriff’s Office.

According to the Department of Revenue, under Chapter 125 of the Wisconsin Statutes, “An underage person accompanied by a parent, guardian, or spouse of legal drinking age may be sold or served alcohol beverages in any licensed premises.”

A law which former State Senator Judy Robson of Beloit tried to change in 2009, to discourage drinking by teens.

“When teens drink at an early age, they are more likely to continue drinking and binge drinking later on in life,” Robson said.

Robson authored a bill which would have set an age restriction of at least 18 years old to legally drink with a parent or guardian in bars and restaurants. It came out of committee but was never scheduled for a vote.

“They’re in a bar with their parents having a good time, watching people have fun, be silly, and then there is an atmosphere of encouraging them to drink and to drink at a younger age,” the former lawmaker said.

According to the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project at UW-Law School, approximately 30 states have exceptions to allow minors to have alcohol when with a parent or guardian. But only a few – like Montana and Ohio mirror Wisconsin’s statute, which experts describe as “liberal” and “way out of the mainstream.”

“I think there is an image out there of a 14-year-old, bellying up to the bar with their mom and dad, drinking all night. We certainly don’t see that happening,” said Pete Madland, executive director of the Tavern League of Wisconsin.

Madland says the law lets parents teach their kids how to drink responsibly and it’s a common practice in many European countries with lower drinking ages. 

“There are parents out there who say –  if he’s going to drink, he’s going to drink with me.  If he’s going to learn about alcohol, he’s going to learn about alcohol with me, sitting next to him,” Madland said. 

But tavern owners like Mike McNerney and Jeff Fonferek say just because they can legally serve those under 21 doesn’t mean they’re going to start.

“Even if you’re with your parents, it’s our discretion that you have to be 21 to drink in our establishment,” McNerney said. He owns Green Bay Distillery.

Liability is a huge issue.

“We can’t control those people as they leave our restaurant and what they do after the restaurant and we want to make sure we limit our liability for what we do here at Green Bay Distillery,” McNerney said. 

“For my opinion, they could do away with it because I don’t use it. I won’t let minors drink,” said the owner of Pearly Gates Bar & Grill, Jeff Fonferek.

A suggestion that substance abuse counselor Tom Doughman of St. Norbert College wishes state lawmakers would embrace. 

“Have the legislature look at laws like that, improve the culture, so we are not leading the nation in binge drinking,” Doughman said.

A change some in law enforcement believe makes common sense.

“When you’re talking about someone,  especially under the age of 18, in a bar and being able to legally drink, you’re basically telling them it’s acceptable at your age that you should be drinking alcohol,” Capt. Sandberg said. 

An effort this former state senator attempted a decade ago.

“I think it’s time. I think the culture is ready for a change and to increase the drinking age in bars,” Robson said.

According to a report by the United Health Foundation, Wisconsin led the nation in excessive drinking in 2018.

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