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In Defense of Powdered Alcohol

Some people almost definitely will find ways to misuse a substance than can turn any liquid into alcohol—but that doesn't mean it shouldn't exist.
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(Photo: Aleksei Lazukov/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Aleksei Lazukov/Shutterstock)

Palcohol is a simple idea: A powered substance that can be added to any liquid or anything, really, to make it alcoholic. One small pouch of Palcohol boasts the equivalent of one shot of alcohol and on April 22, after nearly four years of waiting, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved seven labels, one of the final steps before Palcohol could hit the market. (Individual states would then decide whether to sell the product.)

Naturally, the approval was met with concern, trepidation, and high-minded rhetoric. While the TTB has since rescinded the approvals, it didn't do so fast enough to avoid a firestorm of criticism and a wave of "it's the end of the world as we know it" stories. New York Senator Chuck Schumer is leading the charge, calling Palcohol the "Kool-Aid of teenage binge drinking" and asking the Food and Drug Administration "to immediately step in, investigate Palcohol based on its obvious health risks and prohibit this ludicrous product from going to market." This is well within his duty as an outspoken public advocate; it's also sort of missing the point if his goal is to help decrease abuse of alcohol, especially among minors.

But before we get there, let's take a look at how we got here.

Entrepreneur Mark Phillips is far from the first person to try to sell powdered alcohol, but he might have come the closest to approval, and he is still fighting. Phillips says he expects the TTB will eventually approve the labels, although it's unclear if that will actually happen (and it won't if Schumer and co. have their way). His biggest mistake wasn't in the product, it was in the messaging. When the initial approval came, Palcohol's website contained some language on it that didn't exactly inspire confidence that Phillips wanted people to use his product in the most constructive way. Among other statements: "Let's talk about the elephant in the room ... snorting Palcohol. Yes, you can snort it. And you'll get drunk almost instantly because the alcohol will be absorbed so quickly in your nose. Good idea? No. It will mess you up. Use Palcohol responsibly." In the eyes of Palcohol's critics, it was a thinly veiled way to encourage people to snort the product, which it kind of was.

Phillips quickly changed the site, claiming he was just trying out language and that the text wasn't meant to reflect how he actually felt. Interestingly, the site now addresses the snorting issue, front and center: "It's painful to snort due to the alcohol. Second, it's impractical. It takes approximately 60 minutes to snort the equivalent of one shot of vodka. Why would anyone do that when they can do a shot of liquid vodka in two seconds?" Of course, another FAQ on a different page has a different answer with a different time-frame: "Can I snort it? We have seen comments about goofballs wanting to snort it. Don't do it! You wouldn't want to anyway. It would take you 30-45 minutes to snort the equivalent of one shot of vodka up your nose when you could do a shot of liquid vodka in about two seconds." (Rule number one of marketing copy: Keep your story straight.)

Phillips screwed up the marketing of Palcohol, trumpeting the very things that would scare people, rather than maintaining a low profile and highlighting the potential usefulness of the product. Consider the difference between the "you'll get drunk almost instantly" language and the statement of another person who tried to bring powdered alcohol to market. "My plan was to stay quiet until we got approval," Anthony Trujillo, the founder of Pulver Spirits, told Fortune. Phillips should have focused on responsible adults bringing Palcohol on camping trips—the supposed initial inspiration for his idea—instead of people sneaking packets into stadiums. But does that mean it shouldn't exist?

Schumer certainly thinks the powder should be banned. "It can be sprinkled on food and even snorted," the senator said. "What’s to stop a bad individual from sprinkling powdered alcohol into someone’s lunch or dinner when they’re not looking? This can be really dangerous." Sure, that is true. But what's to stop anyone from sprinkling any powdered substance—legal or otherwise—onto someone's lunch or dinner when they aren't looking? Banning Palcohol doesn't suddenly increase human responsibility.

And if you're worried about teenagers abusing alcohol, worry about them abusing all types of alcohol. Study after study has shown that group dynamics and social pressures play a much larger role in adolescent alcohol use/abuse than people tend to believe. Here's the conclusion from a study out of Greece: "Social capital's dimensions should receive greater emphasis for the design of effective preventive interventions in adolescence, particularly in the light of an increasing prevalence of alcohol consumption in modern societies." And here's one from Belgium: "We conclude that social position has important effects on risky drinking behaviour and that the composition of the network may affect these factors. Those developing health promotion strategies could investigate the benefits of targeting central individuals in order to prevent binge drinking among university students."

You can make an argument that the world is probably a better place if Palcohol doesn't exist on shelves. But if you're going to go there, that logic applies to hundreds of other products that are already for sale, not to mention any structural or societal issues that would lead to its misuse in the first place. Banning Palcohol is missing the point. When it comes to booze, don't hate the packet, hate the game.