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Federal Government, States Battle Over Safety Of Powdered Alcohol


This week the federal government approved a powdered alcohol drink known as Palcohol. It consists of little packets of dehydrated vodka or rum mixed with water to create a cocktail. An Arizona businessman has developed four kinds of Palcohol drinks, which he hopes will be in stores by summer. Each packet will contain the equivalent of a single shot of alcohol. This week's approval came after the company made some changes in its labels. But even before his product goes to market, some states have banned it. From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports.

SANDY HAUSMAN, BYLINE: When entrepreneur Mark Phillips moved from Chicago to Phoenix, he caught the outdoor bug.

MARK PHILLIPS: In hiking especially or backpacking, at some point I like to enjoy an adult beverage. And so I thought, wouldn't it be great if there was some kind of powdered mix that you can just add water to?

HAUSMAN: He came up with a sealed pouch of powdered vodka or rum, plus mixes for margaritas, mojitos, lemon drops and cosmopolitans. In an online video, Phillips demonstrates the making of what he called Palcohol.


PHILLIPS: All I do is pour about five ounces of water in there. Then you zip the bag closed tightly and then shake. And the cool thing about the gusset in the bottom is, the bag stands right up and you can drink right of the bag.

HAUSMAN: As Phillips prepared to celebrate the launch of Palcohol, the government stepped in. The federal Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade approved his packaging, then changed its mind, arguing some information on the labels was inaccurate. Phillips agreed to corrections, but state lawmakers, like Virginia's Alfonso Lopez, jumped on the news, concluding it was proof of how dangerous Palcohol might be.

ALFONSO LOPEZ: It can be sprinkled in someone's food. If you don't have the right liquid content, you could make an incredibly potent shot that would be very damaging. And then there have been examples of kids snorting it.

HAUSMAN: At the University of Virginia's medical center, chief toxicologist Chris Holstege says there are recipes on the Internet for making powdered alcohol, but snorting the stuff would burn.

CHRIS HOLSTEGE: You would be in pain by doing that. You would not enjoy that experience.

HAUSMAN: Alcohol in the powder would begin to evaporate if it were mixed with food, and adding too little water turns the product into mush. Holstege, who also heads the Student Health service at UVA, doesn't worry about abuse, although kids could sneak it into concerts, ballgames or schools.

HOLSTEGE: But, certainly there's many alcoholic products that are very highly concentrated that I worry more about.

HAUSMAN: For example, a small bottle of something called Everclear is pure ethanol that could conceivably be mixed into a potent cocktail. Holstege says he carries a flask when he goes hiking.

HOLSTEGE: I can use that to start fires. I can disinfect. And, quite frankly, if I have a femur fracture I'm going to drink some of my Everclear so I don't have so much pain.

HAUSMAN: Inventor Phillips says it would be easier to conceal small bottles of concentrated alcohol than four-by-six inch pouches of Palcohol. Still, five states including Virginia have now banned powdered booze and bills to block sales were introduced in 21 others. Meanwhile, consumer interest online is strong.


LACI GREEN: Hey, everyone. Laci Green here for DNews. Back in my day, if we wanted to get drunk, we had to carry a bottle of booze through the snow. But now, kids have Palcohol. It's a new and improved way to get drunk that could hit the shelves later this year.

HAUSMAN: Phillips thinks some states will make the product available, creating a black market in places that ban it. Instead, he hopes lawmakers will allow sales through liquor stores to try and keep powdered alcohol away from kids. For NPR News I'm Sandy Hausman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.

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