Alcohol in powdered form, known as “palcohol,” has been approved for sale, but there is a great deal of controversy about its potential risks, and it may not be legal for long. Critics of palcohol point out that the risks of underage consumption of the product are notable, and they draw attention to the fact that around 5,000 Americans under the age of 21 die from alcohol-related incidents each year. However, some—the company that makes it, at least—contend that there is no special risk with palcohol, instead arguing that its benefits for hikers and campers make it a potentially useful product. So, is palcohol an accident waiting to happen or a case of much concern about nothing?
What Is Palcohol?
The basics of palcohol are fairly straightforward: it’s a “just add water” powdered form of alcohol, made using a process that the company is keeping secret pending a patent. It’s the brainchild of Mark Phillips, an active guy who often wanted a drink after a few hours of hiking, biking, kayaking and other outdoor activities, but found it difficult to take liquids other than water along with him. The idea was to have a powdered alcohol that weighs much less but can be mixed with water before drinking.
Although more versions are likely to be developed, palcohol is available in the form of vodka, rum and three cocktail versions (cosmopolitan, lemon drop and powderita—which is a margarita). In basic form—like the vodka and rum—it just contains alcohol (about 55 percent by weight or 10 percent by volume), but the cocktail versions also contain natural flavorings and a sweetener. A single pouch of powder is mixed with six ounces of liquid to produce a drink as strong as a standard mixed drink. Of course, it can be used with other liquids, and—potentially worryingly—it could also be added to food.
States Propose Bans on Palcohol
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau recently approved palcohol for sale, but not everyone is in agreement with the decision. Alaska and Delaware already had rules that covered the potential for powdered alcohol to be sold, with Alaska banning its sale and Delaware including powdered alcohol in the definition of concentrated alcoholic beverages. In 2014, when the product was first proposed, Louisiana, Vermont and South Carolina banned its sale, and Michigan took Delaware’s approach, including powdered alcohol in the more general definition of alcoholic liquor. New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, Ohio and Michigan have all proposed bans on powdered alcohol since then.
New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer has also introduced federal legislation that would make the production, sale and possession of powdered alcohol illegal. His plan is to stop palcohol before it even hits the shelves, which—after a small issue with the labeling that has been rectified—is due to be summer2015.
Abuse by Teens
Schumer’s criticism of palcohol revolves around its potential to be used by teenagers, with the packets being easily concealable and having the potential to be sprinkled onto food. Another understandable concern is dosage—one pouch mixed with a sufficient amount of water gives you a standard drink, but what’s to stop teens from using two or more pouches? Palcohol would obviously be illegal for people under 21, but so is alcohol, and the underage drinking problem still exists: teens would undoubtedly get access to it.
Some of the statements originally on the palcohol website didn’t do the company any favors — suggesting that it could be brought to stadiums to avoid overpriced drinks, sprinkled onto food and even snorted to get drunk “almost instantly.” These suggestions have since been removed, but it’s clear that the potential for this—and more—is present.
Now the website features weak rebuttals for these concerns. For example, it responds to calls for a ban by talking about the failures of drug prohibition and the risk of creating a black market. This would be relevant if palcohol were easy to produce, but given that it has only just been created and the process is still a secret, it’s highly unlikely to spontaneously appear on the black market unless Phillips puts it there.
On occasion, though, he does have a point. One pouch—containing a single drink’s worth of alcohol—is 29 grams of dry material. Snorting all of this would be a monumental task, which Phillips claims would be unpleasant, and it would undoubtedly be easier to just mix it with water and drink it. This may not address the speed of absorption—taking alcohol in through the nasal tissue may be more efficient, and therefore dangerous, than drinking it—but it is a fair point overall.
One thing that can’t be denied is that it will be misused and lead to poisonings. How long will it be before someone decides to spruce up a vodka and coke with a few pouches of powdered vodka, or spikes somebody’s drink with it?
Real Possibility of Tragedy
People might be overreacting to palcohol a little: snorting it is probably an impractical idea, and underage drinking is still a big problem in a world without powdered alcohol. However, both of these concerns have elements of truth—it would be easier to conceal for minors, and snorting booze may be more dangerous than drinking it—and ultimately, palcohol offers a very limited range of benefits for most people. It’s a case of weighing the positives against the negatives, and here the result is that the potential benefits are dwarfed by the very real possibility of tragedy.