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By Dave Umhoefer November 21, 2012

Health First Wisconsin says Wisconsin stands alone on allowing underage drinking in bars

Wisconsin’s ranking as the nation’s top binge-drinking state was confirmed in a 2012 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But is the state the most permissive in America on allowing minors to imbibe in a public establishment?

That’s the gist of a claim by Health First Wisconsin, a group that lobbies to prevent alcohol abuse and curb tobacco use.

On Nov. 12, 2012 the organization, (formerly known as Smoke Free Wisconsin) decried what it called Wisconsin’s "extreme alcohol culture" after a question on Reddit, the social news website, led to online debate over "extreme legal loopholes."

One of the "loopholes" cited prominently was a Wisconsin liquor law that creates an exception to the 21 drinking age.

"Wisconsin needs to send a strong message that 21 means 21," Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of Health First Wisconsin, said in a news release. "Wisconsin is the only state that allows parents or guardians to purchase alcohol for their children – regardless of whether that child is seven or 20 years old – at bars and restaurants."

Health First wants to eliminate the exception, saying the law fuels an unsafe drinking culture and that research shows impaired brain development associated with early-age drinking.

Does Wisconsin really stand alone by allowing children of any age to drink in taverns and eateries under such supervision?

The evidence

Asked for backup, the group pointed us to state and national research on state-by-state alcohol-control laws, which we reviewed along with other materials in order to compare states, starting with Wisconsin.

Wisconsin law does say that persons under 21 can be sold alcohol and drink it if they are with their parents, guardians or spouses of legal drinking age, the state Department of Revenue website says. State law allows that at bars as well as restaurants with liquor licenses.

And as Health First says, the Wisconsin law sets no age restriction.

But it’s important to note that establishments can decline, on their own, to serve parent-accompanied minors.

The Wisconsin Tavern League doesn’t tell its members how to handle it, but many are not comfortable serving the underaged, executive director Pete Madland said. Others do so.

Madland said it’s an option for people who want to teach their children how to drink responsibly, a practice he noted is common in European countries with lower legal drinking ages.

How does Wisconsin compare?

We did not check on all 50 states because the available national research doesn’t get to the level of state-by-state detail required to fully check this.

But we didn’t need to check all 50 to assess the group’s Wisconsin-stands-alone claim.

We found that many states allow parent-supervised underage drinking at home by their children. And a few allow underaged drinking by 18-20 year olds at bars if they are accompanied by parents or guardians.

What’s at issue here is narrower: how many states allow underage imbibing at bars (and restaurants) at any age.

Based on our reporting, Wisconsin is not alone, though it appears to be a very short list.

Laws in Texas, Ohio and Montana closely mirror the law in Wisconsin.

Texas: In many places in the Lone Star State, persons of any age can consume or possess alcohol in bars and restaurants when in the "visible presence" of their adult parent, legal guardian or spouse, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Unlike in Wisconsin, those accompanied drinkers can’t actually buy booze themselves. But their adult parent, guardian or spouse can buy it for them.

"It does happen," commission spokeswoman Carolyn Beck said of parent-supervised drinking in public places. They hear occasional complaints, especially in divorce situations in which someone objects to a former spouse getting alcohol for their child.

Texas has some "dry" counties and cities that prohibit some or all alcohol sales, but there’s still a way for underage drinkers to tip one legally, Beck said. At private clubs in dry areas, adult members can get served and in turn can provide booze to their children, under the same law that applies at bars.

Ohio: Sales to underage drinkers are allowed if they are supervised by a parent, a spouse who is not an underage person, or a legal guardian. Tavern owners can allow underage drinking on premises if one of those persons gives the liquor or beer to the underage person and is present when they drink it, according to the Ohio Division of Liquor Control and state statutes.

Bartenders can refuse to serve these drinkers if they want to. As in Wisconsin, no minimum age is specified.

Montana:  An exception to Montana’s underage drinking law allows a person under 21 to receive a "non-intoxicating quantity" (less than 0.5 percent of alcohol by volume) from that person’s parent or guardian. It doesn’t rule out that happening in licensed drinking establishments. But it’s a legal gray area because another law contradicts that and the exception is not clearly written. No minimum age is specified.

The state’s Liquor Control Division suggests that minors not be served; the office is trying to change the law to rule out such sales on licensed premises.

So that’s the quick tour.

We asked Julia Sherman, coordinator for the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School, to describe Wisconsin’s relative position among the states on this.

She said Wisconsin’s statute is "out of the mainstream" in allowing drinking under such circumstances.

"Ours is clearly extremely broad," Sherman said.

But it doesn’t stand alone.

Our rating

A health advocacy group pushing to tighten up drinking laws said Wisconsin is "the only state that allows parents or guardians to purchase alcohol for their children – regardless of whether that child is seven or 20 years old – at bars and restaurants."

We found less than a handful of states that allow that, but a few others do. So Wisconsin’s law is not unique.

We rate the group’s statement False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Health First Wisconsin, press release, "Wisconsin’s alcohol culture once again a national laughingstock, "Nov. 12, 2012

Wisconsin Department of Revenue, "The Policy Behind How Alcohol is Sold and Served in Wisconsin, "Roger Johnson, Alcohol & Tobacco Enforcement, accessed Nov. 14, 2012

Wisconsin Department of Revenue, "Alcohol Beverage Laws for Retailers: Underage Alcohol Questions," accessed Nov. 13, 2012

Interview with Maureen Busalacchi, executive director, Health First Wisconsin, Nov. 15, 2012

Interview with Pete Madland, executive director, Tavern League of Wisconsin, Nov. 13, 2012

Interview with Laura Smith, spokeswoman, Health First Wisconsin, Nov. 14, 2012

Interview with Laurel Patrick, communications director, Wisconsin Department of Revenue, Nov. 14, 2012

Interview with Julia Sherman, coordinator for the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project, University of Wisconsin Law School, Nov. 14, 2012

Interview with Lisa Scates, alcohol education coordinator, Montana Department of Revenue, Liquor Control Division, Nov. 14, 2012

Montana Department of Revenue, "Montana Alcohol Laws and Minors," accessed Nov. 14, 2012

Interview with Matt Mullins, Ohio Division of Liquor Control, spokesman, Nov. 15, 2012

Ohio Liquor Control law, chapter 4301.69, accessed Nov. 14, 2012

Interview with Carolyn Beck, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Nov. 14, 2012

Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, sections 106.02 and 106.04-106.06, consulted Nov. 14, 2012

Interview with Nancy Z. Watson, Senior Reference Librarian, Texas Legislative Reference Library

Interview with Tonya Dusold, spokeswoman, Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, Nov. 15, 2012

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Alcohol Policy Information Center database, "Underage Drinking: Furnishing Alcohol to Minors," accessed Nov. 13, 2012

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Health First Wisconsin says Wisconsin stands alone on allowing underage drinking in bars

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