While attending the annual convention of the American Council on Alcohol Problems (ACAP) in September of last year, Dan Ireland, president of that organization, came up to me and asked: "Mark, when are you folks in North Carolina going to do something about those AWOL machines being marketed out of Greensboro." My response was one of complete surprise, responding: "What's an AWOL machine?" That's when Ireland educated me about one of the newest and worst forms of alcohol abuse, I believe, ever known to man.
AWOL stands for "Alcohol Without Liquid" -- a device consisting of an oxygen generator and a hand-held vaporizer into which the user pours his or her favorite alcoholic beverage. The device produces a mist of alcohol inhaled through the mouth, allowing the alcohol to enter the bloodstream through the lungs and traveling straight to the brain. Many medical experts say the machines, marketed as "the ultimate party toy," produce a quick and intense high off alcohol.
Some have gone so far as to say AWOL is to drinking what smoking crack is to snorting cocaine. Teresa A. Barton, interim executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, said the devices have "no purpose other than to get you drunk."
AWOL, invented by British entrepreneur Dominic Simler, was introduced in the United States in 2004 by Greensboro-based Spirit Partners, Inc., who owns the sole rights to marketing the machines in America. Spirit Partners president, attorney Kevin Morse, contends the idea that AWOL gives its users an instant buzz is a myth. Yet Simler, the machine's inventor, says the vapor produces an instant "high."
That's confirmed in a report by DRAM (Drinking Report for Addiction Medicine) which argues that when a person uses AWOL, the alcohol vapor bypasses the consumer's stomach and liver. The liver's function is to break down harmful substances like alcohol; but with AWOL, the liver doesn't filter the alcohol absorbed through blood vessels in the lungs. DRAM contends "inhaling as a route of administration usually permits psychoactive drugs to cross the blood brain barrier most rapidly compared to other routes of administration. Similarly, the subjective effect of inhaling is that of a more potent drug experience."
When considering what the medical community has to say about AWOL, the health dangers involved are incredibly frightening. Michael Silver, a specialist in pulmonary and critical care at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center, examined AWOL in 2005 and discussed its dangers with the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Alcohol is a potentially toxic substance when applied directly to living tissue," he said. Unlike the stomach, "which can take a huge amount of insult, your lungs aren't built for that."
The further danger is that once the alcohol is inside the lungs, the body has no way to quickly force the toxin out. Unlike drinking too many drinks, which may induce vomiting, with AWOL the body can't fight back. In short, "there is no throwing up from the lungs," said Richard Dalby, a professor at the University Of Maryland School Of Pharmacy.
Dalby contends little is known about the effects of alcohol on the lungs and that inhaling such substances could bring bacteria and mold into the lungs and cause anything from food allergies to anaphylactic shock and death.
Certainly, the scariest aspect of AWOL is its appeal to youth. Today more than a third of young people begin drinking by eighth grade, and five-million high school students binge drink at lease once a month. Two out of five college students are binge drinkers; approximately 1,700 college students die every year due to an alcohol-related incident.
Susan K. McComas, a delegate to the Maryland Legislature, has no doubt that AWOL is being aimed at youth. The mother of four boys drafted anti-AWOL legislation after finding a flyer advertising the machine on her car while she was parked at a community college.
Laurie Dudgeon, executive director of Kentucky's Office of Drug Control Policy, is also convinced that AWOL is attractive to underage users. "It's something that can be passed at parties," she told WAVE 3 reporter Janelle MacDonald. "It's going to have a certain lure that's going to appeal to children and youth that may not appeal to an adult."  Indeed, for many youth in today's party atmosphere, the concept of "huffing" alcohol would be just a new way to get high.
Armed with these facts, when the North Carolina General Assembly convened in January, I took this matter before lawmakers and they agreed our state needed a ban on AWOL machines. Legislation was introduced by Senator Steve Goss (D-Watauga) and passed both the House and Senate by a unanimous vote. The bill was signed by Governor Mike Easley on June 27.
As of April 2007, alcohol vaporizing machines have been banned in 21 states. North Carolina makes 22. But North Carolina's law has a potential national impact in that it will make it illegal for Spirit Partners to continue to sell or possess the AWOL devices in the Tar Heel State. That means they'll have to give up the AWOL business or move to another state where it's not illegal. Although the former scenario is preferable, if I were a betting man I'd bet on the later.
Perhaps before reading this article, you asked, as I once did: "What's an AWOL machine?" Well, now you know. And if you live outside of North Carolina or the other 21 states where the devices are banned -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming -- then the question to you is similar to the one that was put to me almost a year ago: "When are the folks in your state going to do something about those AWOL machines?"
 "Alcohol Without Liquid: Has Science Gone AWOL?" The DRAM, Drinking Report for Addiction Medicine, Vol.2, Num. 2, March 1, 2006.
 Kathy Boccella and Mario Cattabiana, "A Ban on Breathable Booze?" Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 28, 2006, Page B01.
 Robyn Lamb, "Md. lawmaker seeks to ban sale and use of device ...," Baltimore Daily Record, March 25, 2005
 Statement of Joseph A. Califano, Jr., chairman and president The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University on release of "Teen Tipplers: America's Underage Drinking Epidemic," Feb. 26, 2002
Dr. Creech is a regular columnist for Agape Press, the national news wire of the American Family Association. His columns have also appeared on numerous other sites across the web, including: The Christian Post, MichNews.com, The Intellectual Conservative, Capitol Hill Coffee House, The North Carolina Conservative, The Conservative Voice, Worldview Weekend Network, Renew America, as well as a number of others.