Victoria needs other states’ help for powdered alcohol ban to work

The company that makes powdered alcohol says it will begin selling four different flavours this year. Lindsey G/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The Victorian government is calling on other state governments to join it in banning powdered alcohol, known as Palcohol. The move comes after the product was recently approved for marketing and sale in the United States, despite widespread concern about its health and societal risks.

The US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) originally approved the marketing of powdered alcohol in April 2014. The approval was rescinded shortly afterwards because of a labelling discrepancy but reinstated in March 2015.

The company behind powdered alcohol, Lipsmark LLC, is already looking to expand overseas and Australia is reportedly in its sights. This has prompted the announcement by Victoria’s government that it plans to ban the product and will ask other state governments to join the ban.

What is powdered alcohol?

Powdered alcohol is a solid form of alcohol. Exactly how this company makes its powdered alcohol is unknown, although there are several patents that describe the manufacturing process.

It is most likely using a starch or carbohydrate-type of food additive, like dextrin, to absorb the alcohol. When you add water to create the drink, both the alcohol and the dextrin dissolve in a manner similar to powdered sports drinks.

Palcohol says it will begin sales of four different flavoured powdered alcohols by June or July this year. Another flavour is in development.

Each 29-gram packet will contain up to 16 grams of alcohol. In Australia a standard drink is ten grams of alcohol, meaning each packet would have more than one-and-a-half standard drinks in it.

Of the many potential risks posed by powdered alcohol, the biggest is overindulgence before the effect of what has already been consumed kicks in. Another risk is inappropriate methods of consumption, such as putting it on food or eating it straight out of the packet. Social risks include sneaking it into venues where alcohol is not permitted, such as schools and theatres.

On its website, the company lists what it says are the risks of powdered alcohol not being approved for sale. It claims banning the product will just increase demand and create a black market. The company also claims it would be irresponsible for countries to ban it because they would miss out on revenues from its sale.

To further convince governments of its suitability, the company suggests novel applications for powdered alcohol on its website. While not naming any particular supporters, they state there’s considerable interest in using it as as a nutrient source for livestock, and as an energy source or antiseptic.

No details are given on how and why anyone would want to use powdered alcohol as antiseptic in a medical setting, other than the suggestion that it could be useful in remote locations where weight and bulk make it difficult to transport supplies. The idea shows a complete lack of understanding about how alcohol is used as an antiseptic.

Alcohol regulation and approval

When the TTB approved Palcohol for sale, many US news outlets incorrectly claimed the country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was responsible for its approval for sale. One US politician even asked the FDA to ban powdered alcohol. But the regulatory body said it was unable to regulate the sale of any type of alcohol, and could only comment on the safety of individual ingredients.

The Australian equivalent to the FDA is the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and it is equally powerless to stop the introduction of powdered alcohol. Indeed, even the federal government can’t do anything about it, as it only regulates the importation of alcohol into the country; the states regulate and manage production, sale and possession.

Just as the Victorian government plans to do, state governments in the United States have had to introduce laws to ban the product. Five US states have so far passed legislation banning it from sale, with another five planning similar bans.

Whether Victoria will succeed in banning powdered alcohol and whether the other states will be able to work together to the same end is yet to be seen. If they cannot, not only is powdered alcohol likely to become a serious health issue, its manufacturer’s claim about the creation of a black market may come true.