In case you didn’t know, there’s a novel approach to getting drunk that, oddly enough, doesn’t even require drinking. It involves turning liquor into a gaseous vapor that can then be inhaled directly into the bloodstream instead of passing through the stomach and liver. That way, taking a hit, rather than a shot, makes for a far more intense buzz that’s felt almost immediately.
The technique isn’t, by any means, new. In fact, the effects are so highly intoxicating that scientists usually administer the gasified booze to lab rodents to better understand the triggers behind addiction. To get their own fix, some enthusiasts have resorted to crudely jerry-rigging household objects, such as a bicycle pump or candles. Now, with the rising popularity of inhalant devices like the AWOL (Alcohol without Liquid) nebulizer machine, and the Vaportini, a swank $35 dollar home kit that uses heat from a candle to vaporize spirits, “alcohol smoking” may be poised to materialize as something beyond a passing curiosity.
Naturally, health experts are undoubtedly concerned. They’ve warned that consuming alcohol in a manner that bypasses the digestive tract circumvents certain mechanisms the body relies on to not only detect when someone has had too much, but also safeguard against the substance’s most damaging effects. For instance, the often-dreaded, but uncontrollable urge to vomit serves as a reactionary reflex that helps to prevent someone who’s inebriated from succumbing to alcohol poisoning. Lawmakers, meanwhile, have stepped in to halt the spread of what they’ve deemed as a public health nuisance that’s ripe for abuse. At last count, AWOL machines have been banned in 22 states.
Victor Wong, chief executive and co-founder of Vapshot, has heard all about the potential hazards of alcohol inhalation, and for the most part, concurs. The Austin-based entrepreneur believes that the underlying problem with most commercial vaporizer systems is that they were conceived and marketed as “drug paraphernalia” that do little else other than simply deliver the desired effect with little regard for the person’s safety. And though those who inhale generally wouldn’t be able to gauge for themselves the potency of what’s being fast-tracked to their feel-good receptors, his device was designed to mitigate any potential risks by carefully moderating user intake, thus making it a lot easier for them to “smoke responsibly.”
“We knew of the health issues that pertained to inhaling alcohol,” Wong says. “What we have with our product is the successful result of trying to see if we can create something that eliminates those negative things.”
Both the $4,000 Vapshot and the recently unveiled Vapshot mini, a consumer home version that starts at $700, produce breathable libations by mechanically combining the user’s choice of spirit with compressed air. The difference, though, is that the droplets are dispensed in precise, measured doses and served in a tightly capped one-liter bottle. Pop the cap and changes in air pressure initiates a reaction that culminates in a fine mist.
And to bolster his assertions regarding the product’s safety, Wong commissioned independent lab tests that showed subjects who used the machine to take in a dose of hard liquor (80 proof) every 10 minutes for an hour had, within their lungs, levels of ethyl alcohol that were well below where a regulatory agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would consider unsafe, according to data published on the company’s retail site.
He also mentioned another purported safety benefit often cited by other advocates, namely that smoked alcohol, compared to beverages, is eliminated from the body much more rapidly, which minimizes the likelihood of a hangover. To date, the strongest evidence to back such a claim come from animal studies conducted in the 70’s that showed they were able to rid themselves of ethanol introduced through the lungs at a noticeably faster rate than drinking, according to a report published on Gizmodo. Furthermore, Wong’s own supporting data, Breathalyzer readings that saw blood alcohol levels in subjects who had one Vapshot drop from a peak of 0.05% to undetectable over the course of 10 minutes, can be found on the product page.
“To me, it’s insane that you need to basically poison your entire body just to get that buzz,” he says. “By applying some sound science, we wanted to demonstrate that inhaling alcohol can be not only safe, but also more pure and more efficient — if it’s done responsibly.”
Still, William C. Kerr, a senior scientist at the Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group, a nonprofit, remains unconvinced. Technologically imposing limits on how much gets inhaled at once, he contends, would ultimately do little to discourage abuse. “Even if you reduce the concentrations, who’s to say a user wouldn’t use it on top of drinking to enhance the effects,” he says. “It’s hard to say how people would behave give the chance, but you need to take into account what’s more common instead of just what’s possible.”
“There’s also the possibility that inhaling alcohol can damage the lungs, though right now there hasn’t really been any real research on it so I can’t say it’s impossible that this way may be better than drinking,” he added. “In the meantime, we recommend caution.”
Whether or not the trend of vaporizing alcohol will ever attain a significant following, it’s clear that Wong intends to position the Vapshot as the least controversial option out there. The machine works only with the custom cap and even has, for instance, a backup safety feature that prevents tinkerers from hacking it. If someone were to attempt to use a different bottle to obtain larger doses, the entire system would lock up.
“No one can stop someone from doing something stupid,” he adds, “but we do our best.”