Palcohol powdered alcohol may present serious health risks, experts say

(CBS) - A new product going by the brand name Palcohol got a rush of media attention this week. Palcohol is simply freeze-dried alcohol in powder form, packaged in small packets that promise an easy way to take a stiff drink on the go. Some health experts are concerned it could be easily misused or abused, with potentially dangerous consequences.

Palcohol's labels were approved by regulators at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau earlier this month, before that decision was abruptly rescinded. On Monday a spokesperson from the agency told CBS News that the approvals were "issued in error."

Despite that stumbling block, Palcohol may still hit the market later this year. Regulators say they will reevaluate how much powder is in the packets and therefore the volume of alcohol each packet contains. Palcohol will need to resubmit the proposed labels to ensure the contents are explained clearly so consumers don't abuse or misuse the product.

The risk of abuse is high, experts say. The convenience of the packets could encourage over-consumption of alcohol, as well as accidents caused by intoxication, such as drunken driving.

Dr. Kennon Heard, an ER doctor and medical toxicologist at the University of Colorado, told CBS News that because Palcohol is a new product there's a risk for inadvertent misuse by people unfamiliar with its potency.

"The other potential is that given the flavors it comes in, there's the potential for it to be very appealing to small children," he said. The makers of Palcohol say the powders will be available to taste like cocktails such as a cosmopolitan and margarita.

As a doctor of emergency medicine, Heard has observed the repercussions of misuse of a number of novel intoxicating products. "We had this episode a few years ago with fortified sweet alcohol drinks," he said of Four Loko, an alcoholic beverage that also contains caffeine. "Younger people who did not know the products were drinking them and getting intoxicated much faster." The Food and Drug Administration later issued a warning, and eventually banned the beverages.

There have also recently been a number of recent cases involving overdosing on edible marijuana, in which individuals ingested as much as four times the recommended dose.

Additionally, some experts are concerned that the new powdery substance can be inhaled like elicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin. This would transmit the substance through the sinuses to the brain-blood barrier, which would result in an immediate high.

Heard says he's aware of a number of instances where people have figured out how to inhale ethanol through a nebulizer or other medical equipment that turns liquids into mist.

"We need some precautions here -- maybe put a little more binding in there like flour," said attorney Robert Lehrman, whose firms handles regulatory issues surrounding alcohol. Lehrman's firm uncovered the initial paperwork regarding the TTB's approval for the product. "What remains is the concealability and portability is on steroids."

While the recommended use for Palcohol is simply to add water to the powder, the company also suggests customers could experiment with more creative concepts, such as sprinkling it on food for "an extra kick."

Mark Philips, the creator of the product, told CBS News in an email statement that if used responsibly, Palcohol is as safe as standard alcohol.

"What Palcohol offers, because it's a powder, is portability and lightness," he said. "It is a great convenience for the person involved in activities where weight and bulk is a factor....like hiking, backpacking, etc. One package weighs about an ounce and is small enough to fit into any pocket."


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