Palcohol packs a punch, whether you love it or ban it
Gawker calls it “the world’s sneakiest and most efficient way to get drunk.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) calls it “the Kool-Aid of teen binge drinking.” What is this controversial new player in the spirits industry, and what does it mean for the industry's future?
Lipsmark’s Palcohol, or powdered alcohol, is a freeze-dried form of alcohol that currently comes in varieties like vodka, rum, and cocktails and can be mixed into water, lemonade, tea, or any other liquid beverage. The substance’s labels were approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) earlier this month, and Palcohol could be sold in stores throughout the U.S. by this summer.
However lauded it might be by imbibing enthusiasts, Palcohol is equally loathed by many individuals, organizations, and sectors of government for its potential health hazards, particularly to young people. In fact, several states already preemptively banned the product before its approval. Now that it has the federal green light, many other states are discussing their own bans as well.
Let’s take a look at Palcohol and why it’s causing such a monstrous legislative hangover.
A sprinkling of history
Powdered alcohol isn’t a 21st century invention and has in fact been around at least since the 1970s. According to Fortune, in the early 1970s, General Foods got the first patent for the product, but previous attempts had been made even before that, though all had failed.
Other countries have already permitted sales of powdered alcohol products. According to Scientific American, “Japan’s Sato Foods Industries had patented a process that encapsulated alcohol in powder form and since the 1970s has been selling its product to be used as an additive to jelly, chocolate and other foods, according to a 1977 Seattle Times article (pdf).” In 2005, Germany’s subyou began selling powdered alcohol packets online and then in stores, though that company went the way of no more, and students in the Netherlands invented Booz2Go in 2007, though it is not legally available to sell today.
Back in the U.S., Fortune reports that federal agencies technically don’t hold sway over the approval of introducing alcoholic products, as that is held instead by the states. What the feds can approve however, are the labels necessary to officially and legally introduce the product to the market.
Therefore, before Palcohol actually began causing a stir for the first time last year, it already held the formula approvals and distilling permit needed before federal label approval, according to Lehrman Beverage Law. In April 2014, Palcohol’s labels apparently first received federal approval by the TTB. National media went crazy over the announcement, but as it turns out, the TTB issued those approvals in error, reported the Associated Press. Palcohol then surrendered its approvals back to the agency to await the official green light, which would finally come about one year later.
The government steps in
Not long after the approval debacle in April, Sen. Schumer requested that the FDA step in to prevent Palcohol from receiving retail approval. In that request, he famously called the substance, “the Kool-Aid of teenage binge drinking.” He also told reporters, “Palcohol is nearly guaranteed to promote unsafe drinking among teenagers and young adults, among others,” as reported by Medical Daily.
According to The Wall Street Journal, some states, including South Carolina, Louisiana, and Vermont, already passed legislation that banned powdered alcohol last year. South Carolina's Senate passed a ban on powdered alcohol earlier this month, and in that report, the Island Packet said that about half of the states in the U.S. are also debating similar legislation. According to the Associated Press, not long after South Carolina, Massachusetts passed its own ban of powdered alcohol — and the number of states continues to grow.
Recently, a California alcohol watchdog group, Alcohol Justice, requested an emergency ban on powdered alcohol. This is significant for powdered alcohol legislation because, according to Alcohol Justice in a press release, California is the country’s biggest alcohol market.
What’s all the fuss about?
Health concerns abound when it comes to the retail of powdered alcohol, which are the primary reasons individuals, organizations, and governments are stepping in to prevent it from ever hitting the market. Unfortunately for Palcohol, the company may have put its foot in its mouth with original content on its website, which was taken down before much of this controversy took place.
Gawker shared some of this content from a cached version of Palcohol’s original site. In this content, the company described its product as being a solution to having to pay exorbitant amounts of money at public events. According to Gawker, Palcohol’s website also said, “Sprinkle Palcohol on almost any dish and give it an extra kick. Some of our favorites are the Kamikaze in guacamole, Rum on a BBQ sandwich, Cosmo on a salad and Vodka on eggs in the morning to start your day off right.”
Finally, an oft cited concern is the ability to snort Palcohol, which, according to Gawker, the company mentioned directly on its site, saying, “And you'll get drunk almost instantly because the alcohol will be absorbed so quickly in your nose.” To Palcohol’s credit, the company did not recommend it as a “good idea” because, “It will mess you up. Use Palcohol responsibly.”
Funnily or not so funnily enough, these are some of the exact reasons why many legislators fear allowing powdered alcohol products to be sold in their states. If they fall in the wrong or inexperienced hands of young people in particular, powdered alcohol could potentially lead to a new health debacle. The risks mirror those surrounding some energy drinks and their purported controversial marketing to children and young adults.
Palcohol attempts to manage the backlash
Nowadays, Palcohol’s website features very different content. The homepage is a litany of reasons why it doesn’t make sense to ban powdered alcohol. They include citations of the ineffectiveness of Prohibition, the potential creation of a black market, the waste of financial resources, and, “No one wants the government telling us what we can drink and not drink.”
Also on the homepage, Palcohol aims to discredit the media and governments’ negative opinions. While, according to Gawker, the site once mentioned that Palcohol could be snorted and have a potent effect, the site now says that people most likely would not snort Palcohol “due to the pain the alcohol would cause.”
Palcohol dispels the notion that it’s easier to sneak powdered alcohol into venues, saying that the packet is large and the volume of powder is more than the volume of liquid. It also negates that powdered alcohol would be easier to spike a drink, saying Palcohol has to be stirred for over a minute to fully dissolve. Finally, Palcohol posts a reminder that consumers can only buy it wherever they can already buy liquid alcohol, so the same age requirements need to be met.
These statements may be true, but will they be enough to prevent more states from banning or introducing bans of powdered alcohol?
The alcohol industry vs. the new guy
What about the alcohol industry itself? Are other manufacturers welcoming Palcohol to the club or welcoming the products' bans instead? According to The Courier-Journal, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association worked with Kentucky's Alcoholic Beverage Control department on Senate Bill 81, which went in front of the Kentucky General Assembly earlier this month, where it is still being debated.
Palcohol has noticed this camaraderie elsewhere and has spoken out against it. Palcohol founder Mark Phillips said in a piece from The Spirits Business, "It is hypocritical to ban powdered alcohol and not liquid alcohol. We believe the big liquor companies are using their money and lobbyists to encourage bills to be introduced to ban powdered alcohol to protect their market share and profits."
For now, the debate remains heated, and it may take some time for the hangover to wear off.