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opinion | TOM KEANE

Just add water: Booze in a packet uncorks spirited scenarios

‘TAKE A POWDER” may shortly be a literal way to accomplish the metaphorical. Coming soon to the shelves of your local packie: Palcohol — powdered alcohol. Depending on your perspective — and very likely, the number of years away from your 21st birthday — it’s either the coolest thing ever or the seventh sign of the apocalypse.

The basic idea is this: A powdered substance is added to plain water and, all of the sudden, the liquid you have in your hand is what some might call an “adult beverage.” In an e-mail, a spokesperson for Lipsmark, its owner, swears it’s no hoax, saying (correctly) the product has “been tested and approved” by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Still, it sounds like the equivalent of lead-to-gold alchemy, the fruitless quest of all those medieval scientists. Is this really even possible? Yes, indeed. Popular Science, for example, describes a simple do-it-at-home process. Take some absorbent and readily available form of maltodextrin, add some spirits, and you’ve got a powder that, when dissolved, releases the alcohol.

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Imagine the neat party tricks. Let’s say you go to wedding. Everyone’s having a good time until suddenly the liquor runs out. You take out some Palcohol and — presto — water into wine. You’re the savior! (And perhaps, a few might think, the Savior!)

Actually, wine’s not yet on the menu. But Palcohol does come in many varieties, including Lemondrop, Cosmopolitan, and conventional vodka and rum. And the possibility that it may soon be commercially available has created a spate of handwringing. The stuff just seems ripe for abuse.

Much of this is the fault of the company. In its filings with the feds, Lipsmark had a variety of over-the top ideas for using Palcohol, ideas it now disavows, saying, “We were experimenting with some humorous and edgy verbiage.” Rather than exorbitant prices for drinks at a nightclub, one of those suggestions urged, “Take Palcohol into the venue and enjoy a mixed drink for a fraction of the cost.” Moreover, it recommended, “Sprinkle Palcohol on almost any dish and give it an extra kick” — kind of like grown-up hot sauce. Imagine! The ham will get you hammered, the eggs fried, the mashed smashed, and the pie high.

And then there is the pièce de résistance: snorting Palcohol, a la cocaine. “Don’t do it!” the company excitedly warns, which to a few, of course, means: Do it right away! And why not? “You’ll get drunk almost instantly because the alcohol will be absorbed so quickly in your nose,” the company said in one of its now recanted statements.

On top of that, Palcohol can be used surreptitiously. Think of high school proms and the perennial cat-and-mouse game of students trying to sneak in alcohol and school monitors doing their best to stop them. Palcohol gives the kids a new edge. Absent strip searches, it’ll be pretty hard to find hidden packets of the product. From there, it’s only one water bottle away from schnockerdom.

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It’s scenarios like these that have people worried. Indeed, after news of its approval hit the media, regulators took the unusual step of retracting their OK. Lipsmark says the reversal was largely due to some errors in the mock-ups for its labels. But some industry observers speculate otherwise, thinking political blowback may have caused the bureaucrats to reconsider.

So if Palcohol is ultimately approved, is the end of the world nigh? Probably not. My guess is that after all of the hype has died down, Palcohol will be a rarely used niche product. And the fact that it can be abused seems worrisome, but in truth, all alcohol can be abused. Snorting sounds bad, but so is a beer bong. If teens have a leg up at proms, so be it, but even now they can just drink outside before walking into the dance. What some school administrators have figured out is that rather than ever more intrusive searches, it’s better to deal with consequences: Kick out those who smell of alcohol or who seem inebriated. That should be the rule for the rest of us as well. It’s what you do with alcohol that matters, not how it got into your body in the first place.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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