Editor’s note: Steve Oberman and the other lawyers at Oberman & Rice not only defend those accused of driving under the influence and related crimes, we are sincerely concerned about our clients. As a service to those who feel the need to become inebriated by any means, and in our continuing efforts to educate the public about responsible consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants, we are publishing the following guest commentary authored by Matthew R. Lish, who, at the time of publication, is a graduate student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Alcohol Inhalation: the Truth behind the Lies
“Welcome to the party! Inhale this alcohol? It’s super cool! Liquor without the calories!”
Sounds pretty awesome, right? Say yes, and it could be the last night of your life. Some products heat up an alcoholic spirit, vaporizing the alcohol within so you can inhale it rather than drinking it. This works because alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so as you heat up your favorite drink, the alcohol comes off in a gas while the water remains behind. Alternatively, the spirit may be poured over dry ice, relying on the heat lost by the flash freezing of water to vaporize the alcohol, which doesn’t freeze itself because it freezes at a lower temperature than water does. Both of these are interesting examples of thermodynamic properties of liquids… and both of them are very, very dangerous.
To make clear just how dangerous it is, let’s take a minute to understand just what happens when you drink alcohol. For purposes of a little math, let’s assume you drink three drinks in an hour. That means three standard units of alcohol, which is what science nerds call three 12 ounce beers, or three ounces of your favorite 80 proof liquor, or three 4 to 5 ounce glasses of wine. If you like Long Island Iced Teas, three drinks could mean three Long Island Teas, or just half of one Long Island Tea; it depends on your bartender.
The point is this: for the average adult gentleman, three drinks puts you right about at the legal definition of drunk, 0.08 percent alcohol. For ladies, it takes about two and a half drinks to get you to the same spot. In nerd terms, that’s 80 milligrams of alcohol per deciliter of blood volume. So since I like simple math and fractions scare me, I’m going to use the gentleman as my hypothetical test subject for some quick calculations (with my calculator of course). So you had three drinks in an hour, and they went in your belly and made you feel all warm inside and you’ve got a nice buzz going. And this is what you expect three drinks to feel like. Well if you inhale the alcohol from three drinks, you will probably be dead in a matter of minutes, and no hospital on earth can bring you back. The end. Finito. Your ticket is punched, no re-entry.
When you drink alcohol, it goes to your stomach, and then to your small intestine, where it gets absorbed by a whole bunch of tiny blood vessels. Then the blood, and the alcohol in it, cruises over to the liver, where the liver recognizes alcohol for what it really is, biologically speaking: poison. Alcohol is toxic to every part of your body. While your brain is tricked into thinking that it just hit a home run, the rest of your body knows it’s really getting beaten with a bar of soap stuffed to the bottom of a sock in the shower after baseball practice. So the liver tries its best to get that alcohol out of your blood, but it can only do so much. Some of the alcohol gets converted to other stuff in this first pass through the liver, but some of it doesn’t. This alcohol continues its journey along the bloodstream to the heart. Now the heart is the life of the party, because all the blood in your body is constantly either moving away from the heart or coming back to it, in a never ending loop.
Well, never ending until you inhale a couple shots of vodka and your heart stops, but we’re not there yet. So the alcohol you drank gets to your heart for the first time, mingles with all the blood for a hot second, then gets shot out to see the whole body for the first time, including the brain. This is important, because you drank three drinks, and all that alcohol goes through your liver before it gets to your head. While it was in your liver, a bunch of it was converted to something called acetate. You want to know what your body does with acetate? It makes fat. Yeah, that’s right, alcohol by itself has calories too. In fact, it has more calories than carbs do. One gram of carbs, that’s four calories. One gram of alcohol, that’s SIX calories. Now you know where that gut is really coming from.
But back to the topic at hand! The alcohol that just got to your heart goes out to the whole body, including the brain. In the brain, it makes you feel happy. Why? As Dr. Heilig, Clinical Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [NIAAA], reported in his article, Triggering Addiction, The Scientist, p. 31-32 (Dec. 2008), “When you drink, your brain releases endogenous opioid-like substances, called endorphins. These act on opioid receptors and give the sensation of pleasure or, in psychological lingo, “positive reinforcement” of the effects of alcohol. The enjoyment of alcohol has long been thought important in driving excessive drinking.”
The problem is that alcohol also makes your central nervous system slow down. That’s why reaction times slow and why driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while impaired (DWI) is not only illegal, but dangerous. A more important problem occurs if you allow too much alcohol to get to the brain, the central nervous system slows so much it will actually stop. Guess what your central nervous system controls: your breathing. Have too much alcohol: you stop breathing. In case that’s not clear, it does NOT mean you can hold your breath for a long time and win that underwater swimming contest and impress that cute guy/gal you’ve been too shy to talk to. It means you’re dead. No breathing, no living. That’s just the way it is. Sucks, right? But drinking those three drinks in an hour won’t stop your breathing. Inhaling them will. The “AH-HAH!” moment is coming, I promise.
Your lungs are quite remarkable. Healthy lungs, like those of our average adult male test subject, have about the surface area of a tennis court. That’s a lot of area. That’s the area of absorption that you present to that alcohol when you inhale it. Imagine spreading it over a tennis court – it gets absorbed pretty quickly. Once again, it’s getting absorbed by really tiny blood vessels, but these blood vessels don’t detour to the liver, they go straight back to the heart. And from there, straight to the brain, where they have a much more potent effect on shutting down that central nervous system that’s keeping you breathing, and alive. Just how much more potent? Let me show you:
Math time; I promise I’ll make it short and sweet. Remember those three drinks our hypothetical extremely average gentleman drank? That got his blood alcohol concentration up to about 80 milligrams per deciliter. Remember that number: 80. Now a few other facts about this very average gentleman. He weighs about 70 kilos, or 155 pounds, and he’s got 60 milliliters (roughly two ounces) of blood for every kilo of weight. That means he’s got 4200 milliliters of blood, or 42 deciliters. Now let’s see how much alcohol he puts into those 42 deciliters if he inhales three ounces of 80 proof liquor; the same three ounces he drank to get 80 mg/dL.
Each ounce is 40% alcohol by volume (hence 80 proof, proof is percent times two!), and each ounce is equal to 29.57 milliliters. That means there are 11.828 milliliters of alcohol in each ounce of liquor, and since alcohol has a mass of 0.79 grams for every milliliter, there are 9.344 grams of alcohol in each ounce of that 80 proof liquor. So that three ounces of liquor contains 28.032 grams of alcohol. That’s 28,032 milligrams we have to put into our gentleman’s 42 deciliters of blood. Twenty eight thousand and thirty two divided by forty two is… 667.4 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), compared to the 80 mg/dL from drinking the stuff. That’s almost EIGHT AND A HALF TIMES more potent than drinking it (8.3425 to be exact). It’s also 8.3 times the legal limit. Not to mention well above the lethal dose of alcohol for the average person. Remember that legal limit of 0.08 percent? Yeah, this would be 0.6674 percent… most people are dead by 0.35. Let me say that again: you drink three drinks, you get a buzz, maybe a hangover the next day; you inhale three drinks, YOU GET TWICE AS MUCH AS IT TAKES TO KILL YOU.
You want to know something terrible? Some websites recommend inhaling an ounce of liquor as the standard amount to put in their contraption, vaporize, and suck into your lungs, 70 proof or greater. That means they recommend your first “drink” gets your blood up to roughly 0.2225, almost three times the legal limit of intoxication, and over half way to the ER or the morgue. This stuff will put you six feet under, and not in the “I’m on a HBO show!” kind of way.
So if you find yourself thinking about “vaping”, “smoking” or whatever the cool kids are calling inhaling your alcohol these days, remember, you really are playing with your life. And it’s really easy to take too much and then “poof, cough, cough.” Period. That’s all she wrote.
P.S. – for those of you who are thinking you can do the math and keep yourself safe: the rest of us will read about you on the news sometime; all those dead kids thought so too.