Raleigh, N.C. — The head of North Carolina's Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission has asked lawmakers to ban powdered alcohol, something that he says could go on sale with little to no regulation this summer unless changes are made to state law.
"We just don't think we need it in the state of North Carolina," Chairman James Gardner said Wednesday, adding that the new product "flies in the face" of current efforts to curb underage drinking.
As the name implies, powdered alcohol is a dry product that can be mixed with liquid to create an alcoholic beverage. Recently approved for sale by federal regulators under the brand-name Palcohol, the label says it is 55 percent alcohol by weight, or roughly 10 percent alcohol by volume. That would make Palcohol more potent than the typical beer but less potent than the average wine or the typical bottled liquor, when used as labeled.
Gardner has written to lawmakers asking them to enact a ban on powdered alcohol, saying that he fears it will make alcohol more readily available to underage drinkers and could be used to concoct beverages with high concentrations of alcohol.
The commission has broad authority to regulate what alcoholic beverages are sold in the state. However, powdered alcohol is not a "beverage" and therefore falls into a loophole under North Carolina law. Gardner said the commission currently doesn't have the authority to regulate powdered alcohol sales.
"These would be in every convenience store, every supermarket in the state of North Carolina," he said. "It's much harder to get (liquid) alcohol."Federal regulators approved the packaging for Palcohol earlier this year, clearing the way for sales to begin sometime this summer. Palcohol is owned by Arizona-based Lipsmark LLC. Company president Mark Phillips says that states such as North Carolina are overreacting in response to imagined threats from his products.
Phillips declined an interview but said in a written statement that lawmakers would be "irresponsible" to ban Palcohol.
"Whether you are conservative or liberal, no one wants a nanny state telling its citizens what they can and cannot drink," he wrote. "The legislature is there to protect the citizen’s right to choose and support innovative business ideas, not to impose your values on them."
Other states taking similar steps
Louisiana, Ohio, South Carolina and Vermont banned the sale of powdered alcohol in 2014, and many more states are considering prohibitions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado cleared the way for regulation this year, while Virginia's governor has signed a bill banning the sale.
Nationally, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, has called for Congress to override the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau's decision to approve the sale of Palcohol and ban it nationally.
"We simply can’t sit back and wait for powdered alcohol to hit store shelves across the country, potentially causing more alcohol-related hospitalizations and, God forbid, deaths," Schumer said.
Lawmakers in North Carolina say they are likely to take up the Palcohol ban this spring.
"I wanted to take a proactive kind of approach," said Shelly Willingham, D-Edgecombe, the lead sponsor of HB 290, who has been a member of his county's local ABC Board and an official with the North Carolina Association of ABC Boards.
"I think there would be broad-based support for it," said Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, co-chairman of the House Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee. "We don't know how to regulate it, so at this point in time, it's best to say, 'Time out. We're not going to do this.'"
Gardner's letter specifically endorses House Bill 290, which would ban the sale, transportation, consumption or possession of powdered alcohol.
Hardister said he would like to see how other states handle powdered alcohol sales before allowing the product to be sold in North Carolina.
"It's a public safety issue," he said.
The front page of the Palcohol website is replete with responses to public safety issues that have been raised, from the potential to spike the drinks of unsuspecting people to the potential to make alcohol more easily accessible to underage drinkers.
"Unfortunately, the media coverage has focused on the perceived negative aspects of powdered alcohol as a result of ignorance about the product. Remember, no one has ever tried Palcohol, so all the criticisms are just speculation," the website says.
In a video on the company's website, Phillips said Palcohol's main advantage is its lower weight, making it easier to transport for hikers and cheaper to ship for businesses in high-cost locations, such as Hawaii, or on airlines. He makes the case that, as currently formulated, Palcohol is too bulky to sneak into concert venues or use for the purposes of spiking drinks.
Public health experts and Gardner say they are more worried about the ready access Palcohol would provide to underage drinkers and the ability to use it in ways not specified by the label.
"Powdered alcohol is also highly concealable, making it all too easy for youth to access and consume," said David Jernigan, Director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Currently 4,300 young people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related causes. Our efforts should be focused on making alcoholic products less, not more, available to our nation's youth."
Rebecca Williams, a research associate at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, said that powdered alcohol presents "high potential for abuse" and could be particularly easy for those under age 21 to obtain. Williams has done research exploring underage access to alcohol via online websites, finding that minors have been able to buy alcohol through websites such as eBay.
In addition, the very properties that make it easy to ship and use make Palcohol easy to conceal from parents and use in unintended ways, such as mixing it in higher than prescribed concentrations, Williams said.
"There's a lot of concerns that haven't been adequately addressed," she said.