A controversial powdered alcohol called Palcohol made headlines last spring, when word spread—prematurely, as it now turns out—that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) had approved the product for sale. The TTB quickly stated that it issued approval in error, and that Palcohol was not approved.
This week, though, Lipsmark, the company that owns Palcohol, said that it has officially gotten the OK from federal regulators. Palcohol “is now legal to be sold in the United States. We will be working on getting the production facility up and running. It will take a while but hopefully it will be available this summer,” a company announcement stated.
According to the Associated Press, the four Palcohol products that have been approved for sale by federal agencies are powdered, just-add-water versions of a cosmopolitan and a margarita (dubbed the “Powderita”), as well as plain old vodka and rum. A Lemon Drop powder is supposed to be approved soon as well.
Palcohol’s FAQ page explains that the powder, “when used as directed, by adding six ounces of liquid to it, is equal to a standard mixed drink.” The page also points out that Palcohol is gluten free, and that each bag of powder is about 80 calories.
The plan is to market Palcohol to travelers and outdoors enthusiasts, among other groups who might like the idea of having some on-the-go booze without dealing with heavy and bulky bottles full of liquid. Palcohol might also be added to foods in order to make “adult” versions of, say, ice cream. But the secret ingredient doesn’t change the taste. “When you add Palcohol to food, you’re not really adding flavor to the dish, just alcohol,” the Palcohol site states.
That special quality, however, has prompted some state lawmakers to push for a ban on the product before it hits the shelves. Just this week, on the same day Palcohol announced that it had gotten federal approval, a state senator in Pennsylvania pushed to make powdered alcohol illegal in the state, partially due to fears that it’s easy to hide and consume and could be sprinkled onto food, increasing the odds that it would be abused by kids. Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio are among the other states that have taken steps to ban Palcohol before it is even approved for sale.
Palcohol claims that states are taking preemptive strikes against it “because the liquor industry is against it and they want to squash competition and protect their market share. The liquor companies have lots of money to lobby for what they want and we are no match for their deep pockets.”
The makers of Palcohol also claim that there are many misconceptions about the product. For instance, despite concerns that the substance could be snorted like elicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin, the company says snorting powdered alcohol is not worth the trouble: “It’s painful to snort due to the alcohol,” the FAQ explains. “Second, it’s impractical. It takes approximately 60 minutes to snort the equivalent of one shot of vodka. Why would anyone do that when they can do a shot of liquid vodka in two seconds?” However, a quick glimpse at the headlines shows that young people are willing to go much further than that to get drunk — remember “butt chugging“?
Unintentional misuse and stealth intoxication
More importantly, though, intentional misuse of the product is only one of the potential health risks. Because Palcohol is an entirely new form of alcohol, experts have said there’s a high risk for inadvertent misuse by people unfamiliar with its potency. Given the ease with which powdered alcohol can be consumed compared with normal drinking volumes, consumers can very quickly ingest risky levels of alcohol. From the patents, the powdered alcohols contain anywhere between 30 to 60% ethanol. A 50 gram packet could contain as much as 30 grams of ethanol; that’s almost twice the alcohol content in a can of beer.
When it comes to alcohol consumption in its traditional liquid form there can be a narrow margin of safety before brain stem functions like breathing, heartbeat rhythm and the gagging reflex begin to shut down when large amounts are consumed over a short space of time. When drinking over a two-hour time period, brain stem function may be impaired for average sized men and women respectively at approximately 13 and 10 standard drink servings of alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines the threshold of low risk drinking as no more than four and three drinks in any one day and 14 and seven in any one week period for men and women respectively. The possibility of consuming multiple packets could be dangerous.
Alcohol poisoning is already on the rise: hospitalizations of 18 to 24-year-olds related to alcohol overdoses in the US increased by 67% between 1999 and 2008. Demonstrating the vulnerability of novice drinkers, college freshman have among the highest risk of death from alcohol poisoning, which kills an average of six Americans each day. All together, alcohol is responsible for a staggering 1 in 10 deaths among adults in the U.S.
The manufacturers have said they only promote responsible drinking, including asking people to make sure they find out whether they can take the product into venues. But we know very little about this new vehicle of alcohol delivery: is it easily detectable when added to other drinks? Could it be used as another form of stealth intoxication in a manner similar to other drugs used to facilitate sexual assaults, for example? If the company suggest adding it to food but say it doesn’t affect taste, does this up the chances of some unsuspecting person consuming it? And given that the product is marketed as a convenient “on-the-go” alternative to traditional alcohol, what about drunk driving? Already, more than 3.3 million young people aged 18-24 drive under the influence of alcohol each year — a reckless decision that kills 30 Americans every single day. and costs the U.S. economy more than $59 billion annually. How will the availability of pocket-sized packets of powdered alcohol affect these statistics?
Experience in multiple countries with ‘alcopops’ has shown this type of product and marketing attracts young people at earlier ages, putting them at higher risk for addiction and other negative consequences than those who wait until they are older to drink. Alcoholic powder would likely attract a similarly youthful and risk-taking customer base as did alcoholic jello, and the result might just be more drinking, more addiction, injuries and other adverse consequences to the drinkers as well as the people around them.
“Liquid alcohol is already the most abused substance in the nation, with great human and economic cost,” Constance Scharff, Ph.D., Senior Addiction Research Fellow and Director of Addiction Research at Cliffside Malibu treatment center, told Forbes. “I can’t see how powdered alcohol can do anything but add to the cost of alcohol abuse, hurting both the economy and adding to human suffering.”