What Is Powdered Alcohol? The Sobering Facts about This Banned Substance
There are good reasons why alcohol in powdered form is currently banned. Learn what the powdered alcohol dangers are, especially for teens and under-aged users:
Though the concept of “powdered alcohol” has been around since at least the 19th century, it wasn’t a widespread topic for public discussion until 2014, when the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau first approved “Palcohol” (patented by Lipsmark, LLC). Nationwide controversy erupted: before plans to put the product on the public market could even be initiated, half the states in the U.S. had banned all powdered-alcohol sales. The initial Palcohol approval was revoked in April 2014, then re-initiated in March 2015.
What is powdered alcohol? In chemical terms, it’s created by mixing alcoholic drinks with sugars so the liquid is absorbed, leaving a powder that can be re-hydrated with water to create a standard “drink”—the same principle behind the powdered lattes and cocoas sold in every grocery store. In health terms, powdered alcohol has the potential to be at least as dangerous as liquid alcohol.
This article looks at the sobering facts about this banned substance and the controversy surrounding it.
WHY “POWDERED” ALCOHOL?
The search for an effective means of “powdering” alcohol was active in many food chemistry labs forty years before Palcohol made the news. One reason it took so long is that the intoxicating element (ethanol) is naturally bound to the liquid and would evaporate unabsorbed if simply poured on a powder.
To get rid of the liquid while retaining the alcoholic essence, a complicated chemical process called “microencapsulation” is used to separate the ethanol molecules and enclose them in protective coatings of fat until they can be trapped in powder. Early microencapsulation procedures were too expensive to be practical for anything but lab work: the first commercially available powdered alcohol appeared in Japan in 1981, and a product called Subyou became available in Germany in 2005. However, no powdered alcohol had yet been approved for the U.S. market when Palcohol came to public attention.
Theoretically, the purpose of making alcohol available in powdered form is to reduce water weight, so people who drink alcohol legally and responsibly can easily take along “one for the road”—or a week’s supply for backpacking trips. (Some supporters also believe the powdering process could make it possible for medical centers and chemistry labs to store a larger supply of alcohols for purposes other than consumption.)
Practically, making such an intoxicating substance easier to carry—and conceal—could have numerous negative ramifications.
RISKS AND CONCERNS OF POWERED ALCOHOL
Opponents of powdered alcohol cite a number of potential dangers:
- Substances sold in powdered form are more potently concentrated, and thus carry greater risk of overuse and overdose than their liquid counterparts.
- Powdered alcohol would be easy to smuggle into public venues and parties, increasing the potential for public drunkenness and drink-spiking.
- Plans to market “flavored” powdered alcohols would have dangerous appeal to people below legal drinking age.
- The ability to keep a larger alcohol supply would have particularly negative impacts on underage drinkers and people with alcoholism.
- People are more likely to be careless with home storage when products are sold in packets, and small children could find it easier to open packets and sample the contents.
- Powdered-alcohol users are likely to experiment with snorting, injection and other forms of ingestion more dangerous than drinking. They are also likely to mix powdered alcohol with illegal powdered drugs, and even more likely to mix it with beverages other than water, including drinks that are already alcoholic.
As of now, most of these dangers remain theoretical. Plans to get Palcohol on the open market in 2015 never came to fruition. Probably because powdered alcohol is not yet widely distributed or available, no deaths or addictions have been attributed to such products.
What is a matter of record are the statistics on other forms of alcohol use and other powdered drugs—and the statistics are sobering.
- As many as 26.9% of American adults drink to “binge” levels (4 or more drinks in 2 hours) in any given month. Over 15 million adults and 623,000 teenagers have alcohol use disorder.
- Underage drinkers between 12 and 20 consume (mostly in binges) 11% of alcohol in the United States.
- 88,000 fatalities and $249 billion of economic waste are annually attributed to alcohol misuse.
- The greater potency of powders has led to documented fatalities even with drugs as innocuous as caffeine.
- Cocaine, the best-known powdered drug, accounts for half a million emergency room visits and over 5,000 deaths each year.
- The United States Drug Enforcement Administration reports that increased availability of heroin in powder form—which many people consider a more “respectable” means of use than injection—coincides with a significant rise in heroin overdose
- Long-term effects of alcohol, cocaine and heroin use may include heart failure, liver failure and brain damage.
While there’s no real evidence that powdered alcohol is more dangerous than liquid alcohol or any more widely available powdered drug, it would be foolish to expect it not to bring all the typical problems that go with intoxicating substances: misuse, addiction, economic waste and frequent fatalities.
CHANGES TO COME?
Is powdered alcohol legal now? The future legality and availability of powdered alcohol remain uncertain. Open-market sale is now banned in 33 states and the District of Columbia, with only three states officially recognizing the substance as a legitimate form of alcohol. Palcohol never became the public-market success Lipsmark hoped for—at last report, the formula and manufacturing process were up for auction—but various “cocktail mixes” remain available from restaurant supply stores and online sources. Questions remain about whether powdered alcohol, when used as directed, is more dangerous than liquid alcohol.
One thing can be guaranteed, however. Like any chemical product with get-high or pain-relief potential, powdered alcohol will eventually find its way to large numbers of determined users—often with devastating consequences.
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