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States Seek to Ban Powdered Alcohol Before It Even Hits Stores

Lawmakers this year are looking to join a growing movement to preemptively prohibit "Palcohol."

States across the country, both liberal and conservative, are finding common ground in stopping a powdered alcohol product before it gets started.

Even before legislative sessions start, lawmakers are listing a ban of an as-yet-unapproved product called Palcohol among their top priorities. Legislators in Colorado, Nebraska and Utah want to join lawmakers in Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and Vermont in prohibiting stores from selling powdered alcohol.  

South Carolina is looking to permanently extend a ban passed last year, when other states took action after news of the product surfaced. The powder comes in a four-inch by six-inch sealable pouch in vodka, rum and a variety of mixed-drink flavors. The product, developed by Arizona-based Lipsmark, dissolves in water. One serving, which fills about a third of a standard glass tumbler, is equivalent to a single shot of alcohol, according to its creator, Mark Phillips. 

The company has declined to say how the product is made, beyond containing powdered alcohol, "natural flavorings" and a sweetener, in the case of the mixed-drink flavors.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an agency within the Treasury Department that regulates alcohol products, granted approval in April of last year. But the Bureau declared less than two weeks later that it had issued the approval in error, and Phillips maintains his company voluntarily surrendered approval because of a mistake on the product’s proposed label. 

By the time news of the reversal broke, various outlets had already looked at early drafts of Palcohol’s website, which included passages touting the product as an efficient and surreptitious new way to get drunk by sprinkling it on food or sneaking it into events. It didn’t recommend snorting the product but said “you’ll get drunk almost instantly because the alcohol will be absorbed so quickly.”

That reporting helped draw the attention of Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who called for the Food and Drug Administration to ban Palcohol (an FDA spokeswoman said it doesn’t have the authority to do that). But powdered alcohol also drew the attention of state legislatures, which started banning the substance before it becomes available in stores, which Lipsmark says won’t come until spring at the earliest.  

“The approval process is complicated, and one never knows how long it will take, but I'm hoping within the next few weeks,” Phillips said by email. A Lipsmark spokeswoman said Phillips was unavailable for a phone interview.

A Bureau spokesman didn’t return multiple requests for comment on the product’s status. 

Efforts to commercialize powdered alcohol date back decades and have surfaced in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, but they’re never been able to sustain interest in international markets where they have appeared, according to Smithsonian magazine.

State lawmakers cited public health concerns in their preemptive bans, saying they feared the product would increase alcohol abuse, particularly among teenagers.  

Phillips has since posted a video on Palcohol’s website to defend the product. He said the website’s previous statements were an attempt to sound edgy but were misguided. He now points out that snorting the product would be painful and ultimately would take longer to consume than a typical shot. He also says the argument that teenagers will abuse the product is overblown; Palcohol can only legally be sold to people 21 and older. And both the volume of powder in a serving and the size of the packaging make it hard to sneak into events, he added.  

Phillips argued that the product could be convenient because of its light weight. It might be useful in hospitality business and for people doing activities that make carrying liquid alcohol difficult.

“When I hike, kayak, backpack, whatever, I like to have a drink when I reach my destination,” Phillips said in the video. “Carrying liquid alcohol and mixers in bottles to make a margarita, for instance, was totally impractical.”

Lawmakers like Rep. Steve Eliason of Utah, however, aren’t buying it. For one, he said, transportation would still require a liquid -- water -- to make a drink, so he doesn’t believe the convenience argument. And even if the product remains illegal to teenagers, it will appeal to them by its very nature, Eliason said. 

“I guess the question our legislature will decide is do the public health concerns outweigh the convenience of someone being able to bring it on a hike?” he said.

A version of this story appeared in the February 2015 print issue of Governing.

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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