What if alcohol had fewer calories and enabled drinkers to go from zero to drunk in just a few minutes? Such an experience is possible when booze is inhaled or smoked as a vapor instead of drunk in a classy martini. But smoking alcohol isn’t the amazing intersection of health and booze that it seems. Inhaling alcohol can take a toll on the lungs and respiratory system, and huffing extra-potent hooch gas makes it easier to overdose or get alcohol poisoning. Read on for the 411 on this new “drinking” trend.
What’s the Deal?
The trend of smoking alcohol has been around since at least 2004, when the Alcohol With Out Liquid (AWOL) device launched in Europe. The practice of inhaling alcohol has become much more popular among American youth. Since last May, the Internet has been abuzz with stories about this new trend in drinking. Alcohol smokers use carbon dioxide pills, dry ice, asthma nebulizers, vaporizers, or pressurized air pumps to turn their booze of choice into an inhalable, alcohol-rich cloud. Smoking or inhaling alcohol vapor removes the digestive system as a buffer and delivers the chemicals to the lungs, where they are absorbed into the bloodstream and go straight to the brain.
While this method of alcohol consumption may be slightly less caloric than hittin’ the bottle (alcohol in the bloodstream is still metabolized in cells), it has potentially serious health drawbacks, which is why some doctors are speaking out against the trend. Consuming alcohol the normal way (like, in a glass) means booze takes the slow road through the digestive system, ending up in the stomach and small intestine where it is absorbed into the bloodstream. About 20 percent of alcohol (more if there’s a big, starchy dinner in there to begin with) is absorbed in the stomach, with the remaining 80 percent entering the blood through the small intestine. The liver slowly breaks down alcohol (which is technically a toxin) into less harmful waste compounds.
But when alcohol is inhaled as a vapor or smoke, the absorption happens quicker. And because it’s harder to measure the amount of alcohol consumed via vapor, users are much more susceptible to overdo things, which can lead to alcohol poisoning. When a person drinks too much alcohol, the body tries to get rid of some via vomiting (gross, but ultimately necessary). But when there’s no alcohol in the stomach, there’s no way for the body to deal with an overloaded system.
Plus, inhaling alcohol directly into the lungs exposes sensitive respiratory tissue to harmful chemicals, which can lead to nasal and lung infections and the development of asthma Alcohol and airways function in health and disease. Sisson JH. University of Nebraska Medical Center, Pulmonary, Critical Care, Sleep and Allergy Section, Department of Internal Medicine, Omaha, NE, USA. Alcohol. 2007 August; 41(5):293-307.. Some studies also indicate directly inhaling ethanol (the active compound in alcoholic beverages) can cause brain damage Brain damge in a large cohort of solvent abusers. Al-Hajri Z, Del Bigio MR. Department of Pathology, Health Sciences Centre, Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada. Acta Neuropathologica. 2010 April; 119(4):425-45.. Doctors also worry that because inhaling alcohol provides a much faster rush than drinking it, young people are more likely to become addicted.
Why It Matters
Inhaling alcohol vapor is not a good substitute for a nightly glass of wine. But how popular is smoking alcohol, actually? A non-scientific poll of random twenty-somethings (aka everyone in the Greatist office) turned up zero alcohol inhalers. Is it just another weird Internet trend like “gallon smashing” or “Prancercise”?
To find out the truth about smoking booze, we turned to social media. With the help of a few well-written tweets and Facebook statuses, we tracked down a few ex-vaporizers willing to share their stories. Surprisingly, those who had “smoked” alcohol described the experience as unpleasant, not unlike inhaling exhaust from a truck (ew) or accidentally getting too close to the test tube during chemistry class. Perhaps their homemade alcohol vaporizers (examples included nebulizers and jerry-rigged hookah pipes) weren’t functioning properly, but no one seemed to be chomping at the bit to try it again. Plus, none of the people we talked to actually got drunk from the experience — one acquaintance said the feeling was more like dizziness or lightheadedness than actual intoxication.
It’s impossible to draw a general conclusion from a few peoples’ stories, but our cursory investigations didn’t confirm or negate a growing trend of alcohol smokers. However, despite widespread press coverage, doctor’s warnings, and even products like the Vaportini, we had a difficult time tracking down people who had smoked alcohol on the regular.
Regardless of whether inhaling alcohol is the next big trend or just an overhyped novelty, we do not recommend smoking that whiskey on the rocks. Looking for a smarter (as in, less toxic and potentially dangerous) way to cut calories and still have a good time out? Stick to just a few drinks, ditch sugary mixers, and stay far away from the Buffalo wings.