Since 2004, a North Carolina-based company has sold a vaporizer that turns 80-proof liquor into mist, which an individual then inhales.
The device, called Alcohol With Out Liquid, or AWOL, is produced and sold over the Internet by Spirit Partners, which brought the vaporizer to the United States from England about three years ago.
Kevin Morse, president of Spirit Partners, calls the machine a new tool for adults to responsibly enjoy alcohol.
Lawmakers across the country call the machine dangerous and a product that could promote underage drinking.
"This tool's only function is to get high," said Dennis Martin, Atchison County Sheriff. "It is strictly for that individual to get high as quickly as they possibly can."
Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, sponsor of a bill prohibiting the use or possession of any device that vaporizes alcohol, discussed his bill Tuesday with the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee.
Chairman of the committee, Mark Bruns, R-Jefferson City, said the bill would likely return to the committee in two weeks. Bruns said he expected the bill to gain approval from the committee later this year.
Nolte sponsored similar bills in 2005 and 2006, and Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, sponsored an identical bill in the Senate this year.
Those who violate Nolte's bill would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, which carries up to a $500 fine and six months in prison.
Nolte said alcoholic vaporizers raise several concerns, including that distributors are marketing the AWOL machine to young people.
"There are significant health risks involved in this," said Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League in North Carolina. "Its appealing to young people who live in the party culture, and its potential for abuse is high. There is absolutely nothing about these machines that is redeeming."
Connie Berhorst, with the Missouri Youth/Adult Alliance, said underage drinking is already a top problem within the state. According to the alliance, alcohol is the number one drug used by Missouri teens and pre-teens. Fifty percent of Missouri eleventh and twelfth graders reported using alcohol within the past 30 days, an alliance report said. The report also stated that underage alcohol use costs state residents 1.3 billion a year.
"It's hard enough to combat underage drinking," Berhorst said. "Binge drinking is a huge concern, and this just takes it to a ridiculous level."
Morse said Spirit Partners has sold about 1,200 vaporizers in the past two years. Most were the $299 home unit machines. He said the company also sells a $2,500 commercial unit, used in bars and clubs. But commercial unit sales are negligible, Morse said.
Morse described the feeling of using a vaporizer as similar to a buzz, yet milder. He said the effects were milder because individuals consume less alcohol when using the AWOL machine. That's also why the machine is marketed as a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate way to consume alcohol.
Likewise, Morse said vaporizer users don't experience hangovers, since little alcohol is typically consumed.
"You can't get drunk," Morse said. "With AWOL, you use such a small amount of alcohol over a large amount of time."
Nolte was not convinced.
"It doesn't really bypass the smell test," said Nolte after hearing Morse's comment.
Because of the way the machine is designed, Nolte said the machine's intoxicating effects could even be greater than drinking alcohol. Inhaling the mist allows alcohol to enter the bloodstream through the lungs, rather than the stomach. Such organs filter out some of the alcohol's toxins.
"Bypassing the stomach is very significant," Said R. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis. "It also bypasses the liver. Not only could someone get drunk on this, they're likely to get much more drunk."
But Nolte and Morse did agree on one issue. Both said consumers are buying the vaporizers in part because they're new to the market.
"There's a fad aspect to it," Nolte said. "It's one of those things that catches attention and people want to try it."
But Morse said a second reason was behind the increased sales. Each time legislators attempt to ban the vaporizer, sales spike. So far 21 states have already banned the AWOL machine. And although Morse said he's concerned the machines could be banned nationwide, he said the discussion the bans generates benefit the company.
"Every time a state tries to outlaw it, our sales take off," Morse said. "They're repeating these outrageous rumors that aren't true. But I guess they're appealing to a certain segment of the population."