Smoking Alcohol: The Dangerous Way People Are Getting Drunk

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To get drunk, people are getting creative. But a new form of drinking, known as “smoking” alcohol, has doctors concerned.

Whatever happened to taking shots? Any sort of excessive drinking is dangerous, be it via beer bongs or pouring shots into the eye socket. But now some drinkers are taking it even further and “smoking” alcohol. The questionable practice, which has potentially scary consequences, has various permutations.

An individual can pour alcohol over dry ice and inhale it directly or with a straw, or make a DIY vaporizing kit using bike pumps. The alcohol of choice is poured into a bottle, the bottle is corked, and the bicycle pump needle is poked through the top of the cork. Air is pumped into the bottle to vaporize the alcohol, and the user inhales.

In 2004, the U.S. saw a brief emergence of the trend with the availability of the AWOL (Alcohol Without Liquid) device, but the product was quickly banned in the U.S. and lost its following.

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Nearly a decade later, clinicians are seeing evidence that the practice is gaining some traction — and not just among college kids and adolescent risk takers. It’s popular among people who want to lose weight and don’t want the calories that come from consuming alcohol. “People think it is a great way to get the effects of alcohol without gaining the weight because alcohol has an enormous amount of empty calories. You can’t be ingesting a lot of alcohol if you’re on a diet and want to lose weight,” says Dr. Deni Carise, the deputy chief clinical officer at CRC Health Group, a treatment- and educational-program provider for individuals struggling with behavioral issues, chemical dependency and eating disorders. “I think adolescents are also particularly susceptible to this because it is novel and exciting.”

In Fox’s KCTV-5 coverage of the trend, a North Texas man, Broderic Allen, says he stopped drinking to lose 80 lb. (36 kg) and started smoking alcohol to avoid calories:

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When alcohol vapor is inhaled, it goes straight from the lungs to the brain and bloodstream, getting the individual drunk very quickly. Because the alcohol bypasses the stomach and liver, it isn’t metabolized, and the alcohol doesn’t lose any of its potency.

Drinkers feel the effects almost instantly, but the risks are also much higher. People who smoke their alcohol are at a much greater risk of getting alcohol poisoning and potentially overdosing. When people drink too much alcohol, they tend to vomit. Getting sick is one of the ways that prevents an alcohol overdose, but when alcohol circumvents the stomach and liver, the body can’t expel it.

It’s also much harder to know just how much alcohol you’re consuming in one sitting if you’re not stringently measuring. If a cup of alcohol is poured into a bottle and then vaporized, the drinker cannot tell if they are inhaling a few sips or the whole cup, since the liquid remains in the bottle.

“It’s also terrible for your lungs and nasal passages,” says Carise. “Your lungs are not meant to inhale something that can turn back into a liquid. When you think of liquid in the lungs, you think of drowning.”

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The prevalence of the trend is unclear, since there are no current studies tracking the cases, says Carise. But like other drinking fads, YouTube videos of drinkers inhaling and smoking alcohol have increasingly popped up online.

The trend is also picking up in the bar scene, with vaporizing methods like the Vaportini, which is legally sold in all 50 states. The site boasts: “This has the advantage of no calories; no carbs, no impurities and the effects of consuming alcohol are immediately felt, making it easier to responsibly imbibe.”

Fortunately, these beverages are usually consumed in a wide glass, so the effect is not as concentrated, says Carise. Still, she finds the concept disturbing. “It is amazing what our culture will do to get drunk,” she says.