Powdered Alcohol Meets Resistance in U.S. Before It Even Comes to Market. Opponents of powdered alcohol said it could increase the chances of underage drinking and abuse. Credit Nick Cote for The New York Times.
In 2012, Mark Phillips needed a way to market his new invention: a powdered form of alcohol that could be mixed with water. You could sprinkle it on guacamole, although snorting it would get you drunk quickly and was probably not a good idea, Mr. Phillips wrote online in those earlier days. But now, Mr. Phillips has come to the attention of state and federal lawmakers who want to ban his product — which he says was inspired by a love of hiking but a distaste for carrying bottles of adult beverages uphill — and those statements have come back to haunt him.
Concerned over the potential for abuse, six states have passed legislation to ban powdered alcohol outright, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, introduced a bill last month that would ban its sale and manufacture nationwide.
Mr. Phillips is not the first to develop a powdered form of alcohol. It has been produced in Europe and Japan, and patents have been issued before in the United States. Mr. Phillips’s version, developed by his firm, Lipsmark of Tempe, Ariz., was approved for sale last month by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. However, it is still subject to state regulation.
In response to the growing opposition, Mr. Phillips has vigorously defended his product, called Palcohol, saying it is no more dangerous than the liquid version sold in liquor stores. Gone are the suggestions about guacamole and snorting, which he says were published on Palcohol’s website by mistake and were never a part of the marketing strategy. They have been replaced with an emphasis on the practical advantages of a lightweight drink and the need to use the product responsibly.
To demonstrate the earlier error of his ways, Mr. Phillips said he even snorted Palcohol to prove that it was not an effective or quick way to get drunk, which he said he had not done before he made his earlier claims. The experience was, in a word, unpleasant.
“It would take you an hour of pain to ingest the equivalent of one drink” Mr. Phillips said in an interview. “It really burns.” Palcohol’s website now says that snorting would be impractical and unpleasant.
The change of course may not be enough for lawmakers, however, said George Fisher, a professor of law at Stanford University who has studied the history of alcohol regulation. Since Palcohol’s website initially suggested that snorting the product was a way to get drunk quickly — even if doing it was unwise — “lawmakers, I suspect, will be inclined to take the marketer at the marketer’s original word,” he said.Opponents of powdered alcohol said it could increase the chances of underage drinking and abuse, an assertion Mr. Phillips disputes. Senator Schumer referred to the product as “Kool-Aid,” while others say they worry that its powdered form makes it easier to conceal.
Earlier posts on Palcohol’s website suggested bringing it into movie theaters and stadiums, although Mr. Phillips said he always encouraged people to use his product responsibly and legally.
“My worry would be for children to get a hold of it,” said JoAnn Windholz, a member of the Colorado House of Representatives. Before the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved Palcohol for sale, Ms. Windholz introduced a bill in the Colorado General Assembly that would have banned the product. The General Assembly passed a modified version of the bill that required the state to figure out how to tax and regulate powdered alcohol, much as it does marijuana.
Despite the opposition, Mr. Phillips hopes to have Palcohol on store shelves by the summer. Because of regulatory uncertainty in the United States, he says, he has looked at ways to manufacture Palcohol overseas.
The goal is to create five versions: rum, vodka and three mixed drinks, Cosmopolitan, Lemon Drop and a margarita version called Powderita, according to the company’s website. Each version will be sold in single-use packets, Mr. Philips said, which consumers can mix with six ounces of liquid to make one drink. Each drink will have 10 percent alcohol by volume, about the equivalent of a glass of wine.
Mr. Phillips said his mixed drinks were not sweet enough to be compared to Kool-Aid and he was not aiming at children. The packages, at 4 inches by 6 inches, are not easily concealed, he said. And because of the single-use packaging, he said, it would be easier to spike a punchbowl with a large bottle of rum.
Amy George, a spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said MADD did not typically take a stand on the dangers of specific alcohol products, but it was generally concerned that colorful or playful packaging of such products can sometimes appeal to children.
Colleen Sheehey-Church, MADD’s national president, said, “We don’t have a position on how it’s sold as long as it’s only sold to those who are 21 or over.”
In March, Maryland’s comptroller, Peter Franchot, announced an agreement with alcohol industry trade groups to voluntarily refrain from distributing or selling powdered alcohol. He said consumers could create dangerous drinks by mixing multiple packets of palcohol into a single drink.
“The likelihood of widespread Palcohol abuse — particularly among underage consumers — carries a real possibility of tragic consequences,” Mr. Franchot said in a statement, “which is why I’m so pleased by the industry’s unified response to protect the public from such a dangerous product.”
In the past, the Food and Drug Administration has weighed in on some alcoholic products, like the beverage Four Loko. Its makers removed caffeine from it after receiving a warning letter from the F.D.A. Nevertheless, the F.D.A. has not become involved with Palcohol. In a statement on its website, the agency said that the ingredients in Palcohol were typical of those found in many processed foods and that they complied with F.D.A. regulations.
Nonetheless, Alaska, Louisiana, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont and Virginia have taken regulatory action, according to the conference of state legislators. Mr. Phillips said he doubted that statewide bans on Palcohol would do much to limit its use. “There’s nothing good about the ban,” Mr. Phillips said. “If you don’t regulate it, you’re making it easier for kids to get a hold of it, just the opposite of what their intention probably was.”
Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency physician and spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, said that although powdered alcohol has been sold outside the United States, he had not seen evidence that it had been abused or that it was more dangerous than regular alcohol.
“I do believe alcohol, no matter which way it’s delivered, is still a big health and safety risk in the United States,” he said. “I’ll be interested to see what people do to make this dangerous. Because I’m sure somebody will figure out a way to make this dangerous.”
By Rachel Abrams April 3, 2015