Getting drunk without drinking
What do you get when you mix alcohol with dry ice? A strong possibility of serious health problems, according to drug and alcohol experts.
A clip showing a man mixing these ingredients at home and inhaling the vapors made news in America last week. His aim? To get intoxicated without consuming the calories from alcohol because he has recently lost 25 kilograms.
The video is just the latest to document the trend known as 'smoking' alcohol. There's also a YouTube clip, uploaded earlier this year, showing another American pouring booze into a plastic bottle then using a bike pump to oxygenate the fluid so it gives off vapor. By the end of the seven-minute clip, he has 'smoked' eight drinks and is visibly drunk. The clip has had 2.4 million hits.
Professor Steve Allsop, director of Australia's National Drug Research Institute, says he's known of people 'smoking' alcohol for about five years, but not seen it close to home. "It eliminates the factors associated with low-risk drinking, like drinking with a meal or enjoying the flavour," he explains. "It's using alcohol purely for its intoxicating effects which puts people at higher risk."
This is because alcohol bypasses your stomach and small intestine when inhaled. Instead, it travels faster into the bloodstream via the lungs, which means people go from sober to very drunk, very quickly. This naturally increases the likelihood of violence and other misdemeanours caused by severe intoxication.
"When people drink alcohol normally, there's also a saturation point when they realise they've had enough," continues Allsop. "But when you inhale alcohol that function doesn't kick in, so the potential for overdose is far higher too."
Not only is the risk of alcohol poisoning increased, it becomes much more addictive this way, warns Kate Conigrave, an addiction medicine specialist from the University of Sydney.
"The most addictive substances - like cigarettes, cocaine and ice - all have one thing in common: the fast 'hit'. Alcohol is no exception; the faster the 'hit' the more addictive the drug," she says.
Conigrave is also quick to debunk the idea that 'smoking' alcohol is calorie-free. "Ethanol (the active ingredient of alcohol) contains calories itself and if it's making you drunk, it means you're absorbing them," she says. "You may be missing out on the mixers or sweeteners, but you're still consuming calories without any nutritional value other than energy."
In addition to people mixing these cocktails at home, there are also specially-made inhaling devices that do it for you. The Vaportini, a glass dome that allows users to breathe in vapors via a straw, went on sale in the US last December for NZ$41. Then there's the AWOL (which stands for Alcohol With Out Liquid). Promoted as the "ultimate party toy", this nebuliser-like device was banned by the NSW government back in 2004 after inventor Dominic Simler tried to introduce it.
Simler continues to argue his device is completely safe. In fact, he says it's better than drinking spirits because the AWOL takes 20 minutes to vaporise a 50ml shot of alcohol. "By the time you finish most of the alcohol has already left your bloodstream. Compare this to drinking shots: how many could you drink in 20 minutes?" Simler says the AWOL is designed to offer a mild high and not get you drunk; that it's to use in moderation.
Former NSW Gaming Minister Grant McBride disagreed and said of the ban back in 2004: "These kind of fad products pose serious threats to the community."
Even without machines like the AWOL, Conigrave says such trends are worrying. "It's scary what young people will do to get a high. God forbid they've already had something to drink or taken a sleeping pill. We already get a lot of unintentional alcohol overdoses in hospital and this could potentially put people's lives at risk."