Down for the Count?

© Lesik Aleksandr | 123rf.com

© Lesik Aleksandr | 123rf.com

Approved for sale over one year ago, Palcohol may never make it to the shelves of retail stores for sale. Palcohol is a powdered alcohol product that puts the equivalent of one ounce of alcohol in a vacuum-sealed packet. Mix it with about five ounces of water, and voila! Instant cocktail! Mark Phillips, the creator of Palcohol, calls it “a revolutionary product.” He envisions it not only as a recreational beverage, but as also having industrial applications in products like windshield wiper fluid. And it could have military and medical applications. Unfortunately, it seems that unintentionally the makers of Palcohol may have been their own worst enemy.

The company’s website originally described Palcohol as a solution for problems like the overpriced drinks at stadium events. Supposedly, the site’s content was not meant for public viewing; the website was still in process. Then in April of 2014, U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announced the approval of Palcohol. The result was a firestorm with a literal political backlash when people discovered the not-quite-ready website. The initial talking points were acknowledged by Phillips to have been “edgy” and “questionable.” Gawker quoted several of these now removed talking points:

What’s worse than going to a concert, sporting event, etc. and having to pay $10, $15, $20 for a mixed drink with tax and tip. Are you kidding me?! Take Palcohol into the venue and enjoy a mixed drink for a fraction of the cost.

We’ve been talking about drinks so far. But we have found adding Palcohol to food is so much fun. Sprinkle Palcohol on almost any dish and give it an extra kick.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room … snorting Palcohol. Yes, you can snort it. And you’ll get drunk almost instantly because the alcohol will be absorbed so quickly in your nose. Good idea? No. It will mess you up. Use Palcohol responsibly.

Almost immediately, Phillips and his company, Lipsmark LLC, began backpedaling. Eater quoted Phillips as saying the company added “volume to the powder so that it would take more than a half of a cup of powder to get the equivalent of one drink up your nose.” The approval was quickly pulled for packaging discrepancies. In March of 2015 the TTB again approved Palcohol, but Senator Charles Schumer introduced legislation to make the production, sale and possession of powdered alcohol illegal. He also called on the FDA to immediately step in and halt the sale of Palcohol. Schumer said:

Underage alcohol abuse is already an epidemic with tragic consequences. A product like Palcohol would just exacerbate that scourge, which is why we must stop it. Support for this new amendment is the only way to make it illegal to produce or sell this Kool-Aid for underage binge drinking.

The Palcohol website touts its product as “safer than liquid alcohol.” Embedded there is a 16-minute YouTube video of Mark Phillips on “The Truth About Palcohol.” Among the potential benefits of Palcohol he described was how it could be used as an emergency fuel source—in other words, it’s flammable. Hotels in Hawaii and airlines were reportedly interested as it could save shipping and fuel costs, as Palcohol was only 1/3 the weight of regular alcohol. I could see the benefit in shipping alcohol to Hawaii, but won’t airlines have to carry water to hydrate the Palcohol on flights? Doesn’t that negate the weight savings? Claiming that Palcohol could help reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions—by saving fuel costs over shipping liquid alcohol—seemed a bit of a stretch. The website also says:

A proposed ban of powdered alcohol … is denying millions of responsible adults and hundreds of businesses a chance to use this legal, safe and revolutionary new product that has applications in medicine, energy, hospitality, the military, manufacturing, etc. as well as reducing the carbon footprint by being so much lighter to ship than liquid alcohol.

Legislators who are working to make Palcohol illegal are made out to be the villains. “The legislature is there to protect the citizen’s right to choose and support innovative business ideas, not to impose [their] values on them.” Weren’t the initial concerns for Palcohol generated from their own “edgy” copy on a not-ready-for-prime-time website? And don’t individual states have the right to ban products they don’t want to be sold in their states? In the video, Phillips said: “We need to act now before ignorance determines our future.”

However, it doesn’t seem that state legislators around the country are as ignorant of Palcohol as Phillips would like. Alcohol Justice reported on PR Newswire that 31 states have complete bans on powered alcohol, with the California Assembly unanimously passing a bill (AB 1554) to do the same. A companion bill unanimously passed the state Senate in March of 2016. Assembly member Jacqui Irwin, author of AB 1554, noted the overwhelming bi-partisan support behind the ban. She said:

Powdered alcohol is a dangerous product that has been designed and marketed as a way to make super-charged cocktails on the go. Binge drinking and alcohol related deaths are already a huge problem in California and adding powdered alcohol to the mix is a recipe for disaster.

Bruce Livingston, the CEO of Alcohol Justice, said they were grateful to the states that placed public health and safety above commerce. He encouraged elected leaders in states that have not yet taken action to do so. “We continue to agree with New York Senator Chuck Schumer who said Palcohol will become the ‘Kool-Aid’ of teenage binge drinking and will lead to acute alcohol poisoning and death.” A graphic on the Alcohol Justice website indicated that as of june 7, 2016, 32 states had banned powered alcohol. Ten states, including California, Pennsylvania and New York, have pending legislation to ban powered alcohol. Only three states allow powered alcohol: Colorado, Arizona and Texas.

Then on June 14, 2016, the American Medical Association (AMA) announced they were adopting a policy supporting the federal and state laws banning powered alcohol in the U.S. Jesse Ehrenfield, MD, an AMA board member said:

Given the variety of flavors that could be enticing to youth and concerns that the final alcohol concentration could be much greater than intended by the manufacturer, we believe that powdered alcohol has the potential to cause serious harm to minors and should be banned. . . . We urge states and the federal government to prevent powdered alcohol from being manufactured, distributed, imported and sold in the U.S.

Mark Phillips told Medscape Medical News that he thought the AMA’s decision was irresponsible. He said: “If the AMA would have taken the time to learn about the product, they would have realized that Palcohol is safer than liquid alcohol.” Reporting for Medscape, Robert Lowes said the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health weighed Phillips’ arguments for Palcohol and still decided to support the ban: “”The harms that could arise from mixing powdered alcohol with liquid alcohol or even with energy drinks raises the potential for dangerous patterns of use.”

Palcohol is not down for the count just yet. Phillips and Lipsmark LLC are working hard to reverse the legislative bans and present Palcohol as an eco-friendly, potentially life-saving product that happens to be flammable and could be used by the military for “applications from transport fuel to fuel in a soldier’s backpack.” Is that military product going to be powered ethyl alcohol like recreational Palcohol? If it is, I wonder what the alcohol content will be? Do we want to send troops into combat situations with something they could potentially get drunk on? For more on powered alcohol see, “Hype over Powered Alcohol.”


Hype Over Powdered Alcohol

© damedeeso | 123RF.com

© damedeeso | 123RF.com

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approved the sale of a brand of powdered alcohol named “Palcohol” on April 8, 2014 and then rescinded permission on April 21st. An article in Time said the approval for Palcohol was halted because of an error in its labels. The parent company for Palcohol, Lipsmark, said: “there seemed to be a discrepancy on our fill level, how much powder is in the bag.” So when Senator Chuck Schumer called upon the FDA to ban Palcohol, this kid named River Donaghey got the idea to try and make his own powdered alcohol and then document the aftermath for Vice in “Powdered Alcohol Got Me Drunk in the Worst Way.”

Donaghey took a recipe for powdered alcohol off the internet to mix his own, because “I didn’t want to make wimpy powdered booze like Palcohol, which you need half a pouch of to make a single drink. I wanted something strong.” Instead of mixing in 30 grams of alcohol, “which is hardly anything,” he poured in an entire fifth of 192-proof grain alcohol. He knew it was the right mixture when his eyes started to water from the fumes.

He began by ingesting “handfuls of the stuff,” then he got the idea to sprinkle it on pizza. After running into his roommate, Charlie, he gave him a pinch of the powder and they both set off for pizza. Donaghey said the powder drunk crept up on him and he went from mostly sober to buzzed to beyond. He said he thought the powdered booze blended well on pizza. He also kept getting weird looks from people with his Tupperware bowl full of powdered alcohol. They thought he was acting out a scene from the movie Scarface with a bowl full of cocaine.

After leaving the pizza shop, River and Charlie went down to the East River where they decided to set some on fire. “It turns out my homemade powdered alcohol burns like napalm.” When he tried to stamp out the fire he ended up spreading it all along the rocky bank of the river. Charlie’s shoe cut on fire. He offered some to a group of high school students, who wisely refused. But there was one more thing he had to try: snorting it. So he went back to the VICE office and “started racking lines.”

The powder turned to glue in his nose and he was immediately plugged up. The fumes burned for a few minutes and then his sinuses became numb. Charlie and he staggered home and went to their respective rooms, hoping that unconsciousness would dull the throbbing inside their heads. Charlie didn’t snort any.

I woke up at 4 AM, with my face caked with blood from my nose. At least I could breathe again. The headache had dulled to a manageable form. I went out into the living room and found Charlie sitting on the couch, sucking on a beer. He handed me one. I slumped down next to him and took a drink.

Given the above, it’s not surprising that as soon as the TBB finally approved the sale of Palcohol on March 10th, 2015, Senator Charles Schumer introduced legislation to ban the sale and distribution of Palcohol and other powdered alcohol products.

We simply can’t sit back and wait for powdered alcohol to hit store shelves across the country, potentially causing more alcohol-related hospitalizations and God forbid, deaths. This legislation will make illegal the production and sale of this Kool-Aid for underage drinking.

Reported in the Time article and on the blog, SB Nation, the original Palcohol website suggested football fans could “Bring Palcohol in and enjoy the game.” And, yes, like River Donaghey tried, they said you could snort Palcohol. “You’ll get drunk almost instantly because the alcohol will be absorbed so quickly in your nose. Good idea? No. It will mess you up. Use Palcohol responsibly.” The current Palcohol website has removed such remarks and hopes to be able to get their production facility up and running to make their product available this summer.

They argued that banning their product would only make people want it more. The ban will create a black market and lose significant tax revenue. They also said it was irresponsible to ban Palcohol, because it probably won’t work. “No one wants the government telling us what we can drink and not drink. We don’t need a nanny. The legislature exists to protect our rights to live how we choose, not to use coercive power to force their values on us.”

Lipsmark sees Palcohol as “a revolutionary new product that can help so many industries.” Airlines can reduce weight and save on fuel costs. Medical personnel want to use it as an antiseptic, especially in remote locations. It would be a “boon to outdoor enthusiasts” wanting to enjoy an adult beverage without having to carry heavy bottles of liquid. They said there has even been interest in using powdered alcohol as a fuel source. “There is talk of multiple military applications from transport fuel to fuel in a soldier’s backpack.”

McCarton Ackerman on The Fix said that the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that 47 bills in 28 states have been introduced to address powdered alcohol. Virginia, Alaska, Louisiana, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Vermont have already banned the distribution of Palcohol, “while others are also considering similar measures.”  Reported by MyFOXdc.com, Maryland announced a ban on the distribution and sale of powdered alcohol on March 25th, 2015. “The likelihood of widespread Palcohol abuse – particularly among underage consumers – carries a real possibility of tragic consequences.”

Of course, Colorado has reversed its initial move to ban it and could be the first to approve its use. It is up to the Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division to write the rules for powdered alcohol sales and distribution. It could be on store shelves in a few months. The video embedded in thedenverchannel.com article illustrates the small size and ease with which the packets could be hidden. “The biggest benefit of powdered alcohol, or Palcohol, is also its biggest danger. It’s convenient, it’s easy and it can be sneaky.”

There have been some limited reports of powdered alcohol being a fake or a hoax. However, it does seem to be a real product. The question seems to be whether or not it is being hyped into becoming a fad. For example, hoaxes.org posted in 2005 that it was possible in theory to create powdered alcohol. However, it also noted that the end product from a formula used would only be 4.8% ethanol by volume, and concluded by saying: “But even if this stuff is real, I can’t imagine powdered rum tastes anything like the real thing.”

In his blog, Tim Vandergrift reported that alcohol (ethanol) is a volatile liquid, meaning that it evaporates very quickly, far faster than water. At room temperature, pure alcohol will evaporate away. It can’t be directly turned into powder, so that is why you have to mix and stabilize it with another substance (like sugar or maltodextrin, as Rive Donaghey did), and then seal it in a vapor-proof package. He then calculated the reported bulk of maltodextrin-alcohol mixture and estimated that you would need 26 packets to make an entire vodka bottle’s worth of cocktails.

Assuming you do make this damp maltodextrin substrate-with-alcohol mix, where does that leave you? With a product that’s only 12% ABV, probably costs more, and bulks much larger than simple beverage alcohol, is tough to dissolve in cold liquid and doesn’t taste like anything without the addition of lots of extra additives. Additionally you’d be consuming some form of unidentified powder in vastly higher quantities than the alcohol you’re seeking. Peachy (Italics).

It’s hard to not see this as a product that is aimed directly at under aged drinkers. Dr. Scott Krakower said the flavored powders would appeal to young people. “Youths are going to be very vulnerable to this.” And even though the company advised against it, “people will snort it”—as we saw with River Donaghey, just to see what it’s like.