Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen joined state Comptroller Peter Franchot to talk about the dangers of powdered alcohol. Maryland is among several states that has banned the substance. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun)
Imagine your child being offered a sugary alcoholic powder that can be snorted, eaten like Pixy Stix, added to food or sneaked into schools or stadiums and that turns into an alcoholic beverage just by adding water. With little guidance on how much is a safe amount, the child could easily consume a harmful dose of what is essentially alcoholic Kool-Aid.
This product, called powdered alcohol or "Palcohol," is a threat to our communities, yet it could become available to consumers around the country as early as this summer. Kids experiment, and this product could lead them to consume more alcohol than they know they are drinking. It may also make it easier for young people to hide alcohol from teachers, parents and law enforcement. It may even allow people to be harmed without their knowing, when others mix this powder into their food and drink.
Alcohol is already the leading drug among American youth: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey reveals that two out of three high school students in the U.S. have tried alcohol, one in three drank it in the past month, and one in five had five or more drinks at a time in the last month.
With its friendly flavors, high abuse potential, and portable and concealable packaging, powdered alcohol is poised to attract a new audience of susceptible youth. And the earlier kids start drinking, the worse the consequences. According to the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey, children who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to have alcohol problems and four times more likely to become addicted, compared to those wait until 21.
Among youth, the highest-risk kids will be the ones most likely to use this product. Likewise, adults struggling with alcohol problems are also at risk of abusing it, worsening the consequences of alcohol abuse for them and those around them, through domestic violence, driving under the influence and other serious harms.
After the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau allowed powdered alcohol onto the market last month, doctors and public health leaders around the country raised the alarm over the unacceptable risks this product poses to our youth.
Here in Baltimore, our Health Department convened dozens of doctors and public health leaders to join together to oppose the sale of powdered alcohol. Leading pediatricians and emergency physicians signed the Baltimore Statement on the Dangers of Powdered Alcohol.
And Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot joined the Baltimore City Health Department to announce that the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association and the Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland would voluntarily ban the distribution and sale of powdered alcohol. Since then, the Maryland House and Senate each voted for separate temporary bans on the product (13 months and two years respectively), though they will have to agree on a time frame for the ban to become law.
Alaska, Louisiana, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia banned powdered alcohol before its approval, and at least 23 other states are considering legislative bans. Massachusetts effectively banned the product by ruling that powdered alcohol is not an "alcoholic beverage." Pennsylvania's Liquor Control Board also banned its sale.
Some have criticized a ban on powdered alcohol as limiting personal choice, yet there is a well-established track record of banning dangerous products like alcoholic energy drinks and candy-flavored cigarettes. It is the goal of public health to protect our communities by preventing unnecessary harm.
As physicians, we would prescribe a ban in every state in order to ensure that our children are not recklessly exposed to dangerous products. We should be increasing access to treatment for alcohol use disorders and limiting the marketing of alcohol products to youth. The last thing our children need is another product that is far too easy for them to abuse.
Dr. Richard Bruno is a resident physician in family and preventive medicine at MedStar Health and Johns Hopkins University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @ridgebardo. Dr. Leana S. Wen is the Baltimore City health commissioner. Her email is email@example.com; Twitter: @DrLeanaWen.