Powdered Alcohol: What's the Harm?

Pauline Anderson

March 23, 2015

Substance abuse experts are concerned about the imminent availability of powdered alcohol because of its health risks and abuse potential.

The flavored, freeze-dried alcohol, which looks like powdered Jell-O, can be thrown into a back pocket and taken almost anywhere, according to Harris Stratyner, PhD, regional clinical vice president, Caron Treatment Center's New York Recovery Services, and associate professor of psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City.

"You don't have to carry around a bottle of alcohol if you're going camping or for a bike ride. And when you get to your destination, you just add water or mixer to reconstitute the alcohol ― and voilá, you've got an instant alcoholic beverage," he said.

The powdered alcohol ― known as Palcohol ― was approved for sale earlier this month by the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

The product, which comes in single-serving packages, each the equivalent of one shot of alcohol and weighing about an ounce, will reportedly hit retail stores and be available online by the summer.

There are five versions: vodka, rum, and three cocktails – Cosmopolitan, Lemon Drop, and Powderita, which tastes just like a Margarita. The mixed drink cocktails have natural flavorings and use Sucralose as a sweetener.

Because it is concentrated, the product would be easier than liquid alcohol to sneak into concerts and other places where alcohol is banned, said addiction specialist Petros Levounis, MD, chair, Department of Psychiatry, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Newark.

Disaster Waiting to Happen?

The powdered substance makes it easy to snort the alcohol, which is "worrisome" and "dangerous," according to Dr Stratyner. He is also concerned about combining it with other drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana.

"Say you sprinkle it on a brownie made with marijuana, which is an antiemetic. Then suddenly you're going to have something that's inhibiting your ability to fight off alcohol poisoning."

Because the water has been removed, the percentage of alcohol by volume depends on how much liquid is added. When you add 6 ounces of liquid, it is equal to a standard mixed drink.

Dr Levounis is concerned about a product that "we don't know much about" bringing unanticipated problems. "We've been burned before" when products that appeared to be different formulations of a seemingly benign substance were approved and became a "completely new beast."

He used the example of Four Loko, a combination of alcohol and four shots of espresso. Alcohol has a "built-in protection" in that when you drink too much, you fall asleep. "But if you add four shots of espresso, you prolong your ability to continue to drink," he said.

Another concern is the misconception that products subject to abuse are safer when legal.

"The biggest disaster in addiction has come from cigarettes, not from marijuana," said Dr Levounis.

In addition, the novelty of the product might draw young people to try the powdered alcohol to impress their peers or seem cool, and to use it to excess, added Dr Levounis. He has seen first hand the fallout from such "crazy" behavior among kids.

Although approved at the federal level, the product is still subject to state regulations.

The powdered alcohol was approved before by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, but the approval was "rescinded," said Dr Stratyner. He and his colleagues at Caron Treatment Centers hope that "something can be done to take a closer look at it" again.

Sources: Interviews with Dr Stratyner and Dr Levounis, Palcohol website.

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