More suburbs banning alcohol smoking, powdered alcohol

New methods of ingesting alcohol that bring about quicker intoxication are causing some suburban leaders to adopt local prohibitions before they've encountered even a single example.

Schaumburg officials are planning to follow in the footsteps of those in Naperville, Pingree Grove and River Forest on Jan. 10 by outlawing the possession and sale of both powdered alcohol and alcohol-smoking devices.

Powdered alcohol - known as “Palcohol” - can be added to already alcoholic beverages to make them more potent.

“Alcohol without liquid” devices, or AWOL machines, vaporize liquid alcohol into fumes that can be inhaled, reaching the bloodstream faster by bypassing the body's digestive system.

The local ordinances give communities prosecution powers and more control over methods of ingesting alcohol that have been deemed dangerous, though they're already banned at the state level, authorities in the suburbs say.

“We're trying to stay in front of it,” Schaumburg Police Chief Jim Lamkin said. “For us, it was pre-emptive. From a public safety standpoint, it's something we just don't want here.”

Under the pending law, violators would have the option of paying a $250 fine if they don't want to contest the charge, or request a local adjudication hearing, at which the fine could be potentially dropped or go as high as $1,500.

Naperville adopted its bans on Palcohol and AWOL machines in the spring, and it has still not encountered any violations nor received any complaints about the new laws from any business or individual.

Naperville City Prosecutor Kavita Athanikar said Palcohol was developed by a hiker as a way of making alcoholic beverages portable in nonliquid form. Among the problems the powder creates for law enforcement is its ability to more easily conceal a controlled substance, she said.

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico, whose responsibilities include that of liquor commissioner, said the city's bans were inspired by a national newspaper article that described the practice of alcohol smoking at bars on the East and West coasts as well as Chicago.

“If it happens in Chicago, it will work its way out here,” Chirico said. “Hopefully, it won't catch on.”

Pingree Grove and River Forest officials also said they've never encountered any such devices before or since the recent approvals of their bans. DeKalb officials could only say they haven't come across any recent violations of their law adopted back in 2006.

Schaumburg is expected to soon join Naperville on the growing list of suburbs that are enacting bans on the use of alcohol-smoking devices and powdered alcohol. The inventor of this device, known as the Vaportini, says such laws are well-meaning but ill-informed. Courtesy of Vaportini

Julie Palmer is the inventor of a device called the Vaportini and the owner of the California-based company that sells it. Only a year and a half ago, she also owned the now closed Red Kiva lounge in Chicago, where patrons were able to sample the Vaportini.

Palmer said most laws against AWOL machines are well-intentioned, though some can be ill-informed.

Though she acknowledges the devices can be dangerous if their primary goal is to provide faster intoxication, Palmer said hers is significantly different in both design and intent.

Because only an ounce and a half of alcohol can be vaporized at any one time with the Vaportini, its effect is more like sniffing a glass of spirits rather than quick intoxication, Palmer said.

Among 100,000 units sold in three years, there have been no complaints of health risks, she said.

“As a responsible business owner, I did not want to sell a product that would be dangerous in any way,” Palmer said.

Though there are 23 states that ban AWOL machines - including Illinois since 2007 - those laws describe the devices in such detail that the Vaportini is exempt, Palmer said.

However, the pending Schaumburg law defines the machines broadly enough - a device that vaporizes alcohol for any but medical reasons - that the Vaportini would be included in the ban, Schaumburg Village Attorney Rita Elsner said.

And Dr. Salahuddin Syed, an addictionologist at the Amita Health Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates, said there are no variations of an alcohol vaporization device he could endorse from a medical perspective.

“I don't believe these are safe in any capacity,” Syed said. “If (users) don't get an effect, they often keep going until they get an effect.”

"Alcohol without liquid" or AWOL machines vaporize liquid alcohol into fumes that can be inhaled and absorbed faster. Associated Press file photo, 2004

The devices seem to have caught on more with teens and young adults who would have difficulty getting alcohol legally, he said.

While outlawing the devices has kept them out of the mainstream, unsupervised parties and other private settings are where they're most often used, Syed said. Local bans like the one in Naperville increase awareness and ensure that users can't argue ignorance of state law as a defense, he said.

The medical reasons local officials are citing are also valid, Syed said, because the quickness of the inebriation they cause is more likely to create an addiction - especially in young people.

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