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Powdered alcohol faces stiff opposition

Imagine: You've spent all morning and most of the afternoon on a hiking and kayaking trip, your muscles aching that good kind of ache and your folding chair calling to you as you return to camp in the orange-shifted light of the early evening.

If there is just one thing that would hit the spot right now, you think in this hypothetical outdoors experience, it would be a cosmopolitan cocktail. But that would require having lugged some bottles along, vodka and cranberry. Wouldn't it be cool, you wonder, if you could just mix up a cocktail with a powder and some water as if you were making Kool Aid?

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That's the scenario being presented to consumers by Lipsmark, the company behind a powdered alcohol product it's calling Palcohol. With five flavors approved for sale by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — including cosmopolitan — the company plans to begin selling the products wherever booze is sold this summer, according to the product website.

But many public health and other officials in Maryland have a different scenario in mind: They are concerned powdered alcohol is more likely to be used to smuggle booze into places where it is banned, added to drinks as a date rape drug or abused by teens both attracted to its novelty and concealability, and they are taking action.

On Wednesday, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot announced a voluntary agreement with the Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland, the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association and the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, which represents alcohol retailers, to ban the sale of Palcohol.

Maryland alcoholic beverage wholesalers and retailers previously joined the Office of the Comptroller in 2010 in banning the sale of caffeinated alcoholic beverages out of similar concerns for public safety, according to Andrew Friedson, director of communications for the comptroller, a ban he said is still in effect.

Additionally, legislation has been proposed in both the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate that would restrict the sale of powdered alcohol products. House Bill 1288, introduced by Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County representative, would place a one year moratorium on the sale of Palcohol. A moratorium that would remain in effect even if a retailer decided to opt out of the agreement to ban Palcohol.

"There are enough public health concerns ... about the potential adverse consequences that it should not be sold for year," Morhaim said.

The health concerns over powdered alcohol begin with its potency, or rather the ease with which its potency can be increased to dangerous levels, according to Friedson.

"The concentration or percentage of alcohol can be increased ... by adding powered alcohol to an existing alcohol beverage or an already 'activated' packet of Palcohol," he said. "This manipulation — particularly among those consumers who are using the product with the specific intent of becoming intoxicated — may rapidly lead to excessive, toxic, or deadly blood alcohol concentrations."

If used as intended, according to the product website, a packet of Palcohol powder mixed with 6 ounces of water or another nonalcoholic beverage results in one standard drink. It's rum flavored packet, the website suggest, can be mixed with soda for a rum and Coke.

But it is the implied potential misuse of Palcohol in ways it is not intended that worry Morhaim and other officials. Powdered alcohol might allow for the spiking of drinks without noticeably increase the volume, for instance; and its portability, touted by Lipsmark as a feature, is also a major bugaboo.

"It clearly can be transported in ways that can be more easily hidden. As far as I can tell it's a powder in a packet that could be brought into sports stadiums or a rock concert," Morhaim said. "I believe at Orioles games they stop selling beer in the seventh innings."

"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," it read.

Such cavalier suggestions have since been replaced with more moderate appeals to consider Palcohol's potential medical (as an antiseptic) and energy uses (an alternative camping stove fuel), but for Carol Mullen, Maryland Strategic Prevention Framework Grant coordinator the Carroll County Health Department, Palcohol still seems like a dangerous idea.

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"It has that kind of element of people getting away with things," she said. "I think because it comes in such a small packet, it's easily hidden. ... I also think the potential for abuse in a school setting could be real."

Of particular concern, Mullen said, is the possibility of people trying to snort the powdered alcohol as if it were cocaine, an idea sufficiently suggested by the very idea of powdered alcohol that the product website now includes a specific warning against snorting the product.

"Listen, people can snort black pepper ... so do we ban it? No, just because a few goofballs use a product irresponsibly doesn't mean you ban it," the website reads. "But even the goofballs won't snort Palcohol due to the pain the alcohol would cause. It really burns. Imagine sniffing liquid vodka. 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?"

Mullen is not convinced.

"We have kids in our county that have snorted Crystal Light," she said. "If they are going to be snorting things — this is just something that, being the nature of adolescent minds, they are going to try risky behavior. ... Parents have enough to worry about already, they don't need this to be worrying about as well."

Even if Palcohol sales had not been banned in Maryland, the product would not be sold to people under the age of 21, but would be regulated just as any other alcoholic product.

But even though Maryland does a good job of keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors, Friedson said the reality is that alcohol can and does fall into the hands of minors from time to time, and he and Mullen both emphasized the importance of limiting the harm done when it does.

The Palcohol website currently offers a point by point rebuttal of many of the claims that the product is not safe, with answers ranging from the potentially persuasive argument that Palcohol would make a poor date rape drug — "Palcohol does not dissolve instantly in liquid and would take over a minute of stirring to dissolve the equivalent of one shot of alcohol into a drink when one can spike a drink with liquid alcohol in about three seconds" — to more dubious claims about it's lack of concealability, "The volume of a shot of powdered alcohol is 4 times greater than the volume of a shot of liquid alcohol so liquid alcohol is much easier to conceal."

It also remains to be seen, Morhaim admitted, if in practice powdered alcohol would turn out to be more dangerous than a product like high proof grain alcohol, which shares many of the negative attributes of Palcohol. He's willing to carefully consider the question of whether or not Palcohol can be sold and used responsibly in Maryland and if it might even have medical and industrial uses, and he is willing to take the time required to do so.

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"A one year moratorium allows another legislative session to fully address all aspects of this issue" Morhaim said. "There are just a lot of other unknowns and safety first. Let's be cautious, take a year, and let the public and everyone interested study the issues, study the impacts."

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.

More information

The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau that approved Palcohol for sale approves the labels of alcoholic products, according to bureau spokesman Thomas Hogue, ensuring that the label adheres to federal requirements. It does not make determinations about the safety or usefulness of a product.

"When it comes to questions about safety, being fit for human consumption, any of those kinds of questions are questions we would direct to the FDA," he said. "That is what they are good at, and we rely on them for those kinds of determinations."

The FDA has analyzed the ingredients in Palcohol and issued a clarifying statement on their findings:

"The FDA does not have concerns that the ingredients, when added to the alcoholic beverage products, render the products adulterated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. As is the case of any multi-ingredient food product, the FDA may take further actions under its statutory authority if warranted by information it might acquire in the future about the product. However, at this time the FDA does not have a legal basis to block market entry of this product."

Powdered alcohol products are not new and there are existing brands available in other parts of the world. Palcohol is also not the first US flirtation with the idea, as this 1977 Seattle Times article archived at http://www.bevlaw.com illustrate. A marketing representative for what was finally a failed venture is quoted in the article as saying, "One of my dreams has been to open a package like Kool-Aid and beer comes out of it."

Powdered alcohol fans in Maryland may have to keep on dreaming.

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