Experts worry about Palcohol

Ellen Schmidt

Some state legislators and health experts are worried about how powdered alcohol could affect young people if the substance is allowed in Minnesota.
 
Earlier this month, the federal government approved stores to sell powdered alcohol, or Palcohol, starting this summer. But state leaders introduced legislation to ban the sales and manufacturing of the substance until June 1, 2016, to allow time for assessing its potential impact on the community.
 
The introduction of Palcohol — which mixed with water, creates instant cocktails — has garnered critique and anxiety across a wide-range of health experts.
 
“A real concern for us is that this new product, in many ways, is being targeted to be appealing to youth,” said Deborah Cavitt, project director for the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health.
 
The legislative proposal requires agency testimony from the director of Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement, a division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and the Minnesota Department of Health to assess the impact of powdered alcohol on law enforcement and public health before it can be sold.
 
Cavitt said the product’s packaging looks similar to a children’s fruit juice box, and its flavors — like Cosmopolitan, Powderita and Lemon Drop — appeal to young people.
 
Concealing and transporting the product may also be easier than other forms of alcohol, some experts say, because it can be disguised in a water bottle. 
 
“Some bright person is going to think it’s a good idea to snort it. The rapid absorption is likely to cause some real problems,” said Dr. Toben Nelson, University associate professor of public health. “If you’re getting a big dose of alcohol that was originally in powdered form that you’re unaware of, the intoxication effect can really sneak up on you quickly, and people will be out of control before they realize it.”
 
The Food and Drug Administration has little involvement with powdered alcohol because the substance is classified as a distilled spirit —meaning the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau oversees it.
 
“My concern would be that, because it’s in this weird area between alcohol and a drug and food … there hasn’t been any sort of comprehensive testing on what this does, and we haven’t had a chance to see how people are going to use it,” said Catherine Ellis, a master’s student in public health and co-chair of the Health Law and Bioethics Association at the University. “There’s really no way to know what kind of impact it will have.”
 
Mark Phillips, the creator of Palcohol, compared a ban on his product to prohibition and said he believes the substance carries many benefits. 
 
“The controversy is happening out of ignorance,” he said. “People that make the claims [against powdered alcohol] have never tried it; never tasted it; never touched it.”
 
Both the Minnesota House and Senate versions of the proposal to ban the product need legislative approval before the session ends in May.
 
Irv Hershkovitz, owner of Dinkytown Wine and Spirits, said if the proposal isn’t approved, he will put powdered alcohol on his store’s shelves this summer.
 
“My personal opinion is that it sounds disgusting, but you know, if students ask for it I don’t have a choice,” he said.