“Yes, but I don’t inhale.”
For generations, smokers have been using those words to downplay the consequences of their nicotine habit.
Soon, drinkers may be using that expression as well.
The latest controversy in the alcoholic beverage biz is being generated by a device called AWOL or Alcohol Without Liquid. An Englishman named Dominic Simler is credited with inventing the machine, which converts alcohol into a vapor that you inhale to get a buzz on. Since last year, a company called Spirit Partners, Inc. has been peddling AWOL machines in the United States.
The contraption is similar to the inhalers used by asthmatics, although Newsweek described it more colorfully as resembling “a crack pipe attached to a hookah.” The AWOL contraption consists of a vaporizer, which you pour booze into, and an oxygen generator, which pumps oxygen into the mix to produce a mist that you can safely take into your lungs. The machine is supposed to be calibrated so that it takes about a quarter-hour to inhale one standard shot of hard liquor. The marketers recommend that customers limit their use to no more than two such sessions per 24-hour period.
When used responsibly, they insist, AWOL will produce a “euphoric high” without the throbbing head and dry heaves of a hangover the next morning, and without those nasty calories in a mug of lager or rum and Coke attaching themselves to your hips.
Taunting the Law
Obviously, the device will have little appeal for craft beer drinkers, since it eliminates any possibility of connoisseurship. Alcohol is alcohol, whether you derive it from a vintage 1980 Thomas Hardy’s or a budget-brand malt liquor. (In fact, an advertisement for AWOL recommends using an 80-proof spirit, which pretty much rules out malt beverages… the world’s strongest beer, Boston Beer Co.’s Utopias, is “only” 50 proof.)
However, the machine has attracted the attention of lawmakers like a matador taunting a bull with a red cape. At least a dozen states are considering legislation to ban the device, fearing it may mislead bar patrons to underestimate their ingestion of alcohol and result in health problems and highway fatalities. New York’s state liquor authority was mulling whether AWOL violated a 1934 law mandating that alcohol must be served from the same container in which it was delivered. When Spirit Partners premiered their machine at The Trust Lounge in New York City last August, the marketers reportedly filled it with Gatorade instead of booze to stay within the law.
There has also been concern about whether inhaled alcohol would register on a Breathalyzer test, since it doesn’t pass through the digestive tract. Kevin Morse, president of Spirit Partners, has denied that his device will create any problem in law enforcement. “One of the ways alcohol leaves the body is through the mouth… Therefore, contrary to reports, the alcohol will definitely register on the Intoxylizer 5000… which is used by law-enforcement officials to apprehend drivers who are under the influence of alcohol.”
Nevertheless, Congressman Bob Beauprez of Colorado has introduced a bill, The Alcohol Without Liquid Machine Safety Act of 2005 (H.R. 613), which would temporarily prohibit AWOL machines until such a time as the Food and Drug Administration deems the device safe for public use. (Because it’s a machine and not a beverage, AWOL falls outside the jurisdiction of the federal Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates beer, wine and spirits.)
The National Beer Wholesalers Association, the brewing industry’s most influential lobbying organization, is supporting Beauprez’s bill. “Beer is meant to be enjoyed responsibly, not inhaled,” asserted NBWA president David Rehr. “These machines are a misrepresentation of consumer choice and undermine the goal of responsible consumption that beer wholesalers work so hard to promote.”
In the long run, however, the indignation of state and national lawmakers may turn out to be an unnecessary fuss over a short-lived fad. The Newsweek article quoted one New Jersey bar owner as complaining about the machine, “It didn’t do anything except burn our throats. The biggest high you get is from hyperventilation.”
AWOL machines are intended for the over-21 crowd, but underage drinkers in the Washington, DC suburbs are using a low-tech device to pump more alcohol down their throats. According to the Montgomery County Gazette, some Maryland hardware stores are reporting a run on funnels and plastic tubing, which teenagers fashion into “beer bongs.” The idea is to pour the beer into the funnel and suck it up as quickly as it flows through the tube. Police can’t arrest minors for mere possession of a funnel, but they are urging citizens to monitor hardware stores for suspicious purchases.
Whatever happened to sipping and savoring? That’s the question we’d like to ask.
Greg Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, a long-time resident of Washington, D.C., and a frequent contributor to beer related publications