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Health concerns spur ban on powdered alcohol

Health officials concerned about effects of powdered alcohol.

Public health officials, Annapolis lawmakers, and the beverage and beer industry have joined to ban the sale of powdered alcohol before it even hit the market in Maryland.

The pre-emptive effort comes as concerns grow about the potential health dangers of the product, which contains 55 percent alcohol and when mixed with water creates a potent concoction. Public health officials believe young people are particularly vulnerable to abusing the product, known as Palcohol.

"We know that there is a certain set of young people who will try the latest beverage and get in a lot of trouble," said David H. Jernigan, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who researches youth attitudes toward alcohol.

The ban drew criticism from Mark Phillips, president of Lipsmark LLC, the company that owns Palcohol. He called it hypocritical.

"They say that the ban is for public safety," Phillips said in an email. "If that's true, then why aren't they calling for a ban on liquid alcohol, a product that is abused by millions, used by underage drinkers and causing thousands of deaths?"

The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau recently approved the sale of Palcohol, which is expected to hit stores this summer. But powdered alcohol will never see a store shelf in Maryland if it is up to state regulators and lawmakers.

Comptroller Peter Franchot brokered a deal this week with the state's alcoholic beverage distributors, who have agreed to a voluntary ban on the sale of powdered alcohol. The Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association and the Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland agreed to the ban. The Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, which represents retailers that sell alcoholic beverages, also opposes the sale of Palcohol.

"We have uncategorically and in unity agreed to not sell, market or distribute the product at all," said lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who represents the liquor wholesalers.

Without the distributors on board, retailers may never get access to the product. Maryland's three-tiered system ensures that almost all alcoholic beverages must pass from producer to wholesaler to retailer. Cutting out the middleman is not possible.

Theoretically, a wholesaler could break the ban, but Franchot said he believed that was unlikely.

"When they as an industry address a public health issue like powdered alcohol, that means the end of any possibility that those products will be offered for sale in the state of Maryland," Franchot said.

Legislators in the Maryland Senate and the House also have introduced bills calling for a moratorium on powdered alcohol, measures Franchot said are complementary to the voluntary ban and that he supports.

Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House, said a moratorium has more teeth than a ban and gives the legislature the chance to hold hearings and study the effects of powdered alcohol before a more permanent law is passed.

"A voluntary ban is a very important step," Morhaim said. "But it would seem some business could one day say, 'We are not going to abide by that anymore.' A moratorium would be binding."

Five other states have banned Palcohol, and 22 others are hearing bills that would ban it.

A coalition of public health officials and physicians convened by Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner, also came out in support of a ban Thursday. They said powdered alcohol is easily concealed by youths and could be mixed with alcohol rather than water, creating a dangerous drink. They also worried about its potential use as a date rape drug.

"The last thing our citizens need is a more dangerous alcohol product," Wen said.

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