Inhaling rather than drinking liquor poses new health threat

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It's a Friday or Saturday night. There's nothing to do. College and high school students are home for the summer. A bored teen or 20-something tells a friend that he or she saw this video about this new way of drinking that'll save them calories and get them drunk quicker. All they need is a bottle, a lighter, some dry ice and a straw.

It's called inhaling, or smoking, alcohol. The trend hasn't been prevalent since the creation of devices such as the Alcohol Without Liquid (AWOL) machine, invented in 2004, and Vaportini in 2009.

Some states, including Texas, have seen cases of people doing this. Videos on YouTube of people participating in this have gone viral as well. NBC's "Today" show also had a recent segment on the practice.

While medical officials in Pennsylvania have not seen this trend around the state, they are aware of the practice and say that this is more dangerous than actually drinking alcohol. It could become addictive, said Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway Rehabilitation Center.

"Any time you make a substance quicker onset and more intense, it's more addicting. This is like the crack-cocaine of alcohol," he said.

The reason for this practice: instant intoxication. By inhaling alcohol, the vapors bypass vital organ filters, such as the stomach and liver, and go straight to the blood stream.

"It's like binge-drinking in an instant," Dr. Capretto said.

When regularly drinking alcohol, he said, it is absorbed through your stomach and has to make it past the liver for the brain to feel its effects. That usually takes 15 to 20 minutes, Dr. Capretto said. With inhalation, however, it takes less time to feel the alcohol.

"I think most people who consume alcohol do so in a social setting, where they're better able to titrate their use," said Gary Murray, acting director for the Division of Metabolism and Health Effects at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Some of the risks that come with this type of intake would be in addition to getting drunk very fast, would be not being able to titrate your usage so that you would be able to know when enough was enough."

Not knowing how much alcohol is being consumed is very dangerous. The blood alcohol content of the individual inhaling the alcohol could reach alarming levels because unless a person knows how much alcohol he or she is vaporizing, there is no way to know how much alcohol is being consumed.

Another danger involved with inhaling alcohol is to the lungs. According to Thomas Campbell, chairman of emergency medicine at West Penn Allegheny Health System, the chemicals of the alcohol vapors can injure the lung tissue.

"... If somebody does this often enough for a long period of time, I would be very concerned that they're going to injure the lungs permanently," Dr. Campbell said.

Aside from getting intoxicated quicker, myths about the practice are also being spread. It is widely believed that by inhaling alcohol, the user is spared the calories of actual alcohol. This is not true, Dr. Capretto. said.

"That's ridiculous because you're consuming it, it still gets in your system and you're still getting calories." Another myth is that for those under 21, it isn't illegal to inhale alcohol because they're not drinking it. This is also not true because, Dr. Capretto said, it is still consumption of alcohol.

While dangerous, states have made initiatives to make sure that the practice isn't popularized. Twenty-two states, including Pennsylvania, have laws on alcohol inhalation. They are mainly laws against inhalation devices such as AWOL or Vaportini, which are banned from being sold or bought. However, homemade devices are not listed.

Inhaling alcohol is not the only quirky way of consuming it. Dr. Capretto and Mr. Murray have cited that they've seen cases of people injecting alcohol directly into the veins through an IV or through their anus in something called an alcohol enema. They have also heard of dropping shots into the eye. The reason for all of this is simply for quicker intoxication.

"I think it's part of the risk-taking part of our lives. Some people are more risk-averse than others. Some people are more willing to push the envelope and see what they'll get from it," Mr. Murray said.

In an attempt to prevent these dangerous trends from becoming popularized, according to Dr. Campbell, adults should sit down and talk to young people about the dangers of these practices.

"I think the only way to help prevent the dangers of this is just to educate, to go out and use the media, use the public forums that we have to let people know and parents know that there's a lot of dangers in alcohol consumption," Dr. Campbell said.

health

Amir Vera: avera@post-gazette.com.


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