What Happens When You “Smoke” Alcohol?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 18 2013 3:45 PM

Can You Inhale Calories?

The dietary impacts of smoking alcohol.

Blueberry beer rolls off the line. What appears to be steam is actually nitrogen vapor.
Blueberry beer rolls off the line. What appears to be steam is actually nitrogen vapor.

Photo By Suzanne Kreiter/Boston Globe/Getty Images

Public health officials worldwide are warning young people off the new trend of “smoking alcohol.” The user either pours hard liquor over dry ice or heats it, then inhales the vaporized alcohol. Some believe the process affords the inhaler a high without the calories of alcohol, but experts say there are still calories involved. Can you really inhale calories?

Yes. Inhaled alcohol has to travel through the bloodstream to make it from the lungs to the brain. Once it’s in the blood, the alcohol will be metabolized and deliver calories to your cells. Inhalation is, however, a slightly lower-calorie booze-delivery method than ingestion. When you drink, your stomach and liver break down a portion of the alcohol before it enters the bloodstream. The metabolized alcohol has caloric impacts but doesn’t contribute to drunkenness. Inhalation bypasses your digestive organs.

The caloric savings of volatilizing hard liquor are minimal, though, because of its composition. There are only four types of nutrients that deliver a measurable amount of calories to the human body: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and alcohol. Fermented alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, and cider contain considerable amounts of carbohydrates, because there are certain types of sugar that yeast can’t digest. If you were to “smoke” a beer, you’d miss out on those carbohydrates, because they wouldn’t vaporize. Distillation, however, removes the nonvolatile substances in alcohol. Whiskey, to take one example, is simply beer reduced to alcohol and a few volatile, noncaloric flavor and aroma chemicals. Nearly all of the calories in hard liquor come from alcohol. In other words, by the time you buy a bottle of hard liquor, it has already been smoked once, and volatilizing it a second time doesn’t save you significant calories.

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There are far greater caloric savings to be had from vaporizing foods, which are packed with nonvolatile fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. If you boil the ingredients of a meal into a soup, you can then pour the broth into an invention called Le Whaf—the brainchild of Harvard professor David Edwards. Le Whaf uses ultrasound to vaporize the volatile flavor and aroma chemicals into a food cloud that the user can inhale, delivering the sensation of the food without the calories. (The device does not work well with liquor.)

The main difference between inhaling and ingesting alcohol isn’t the caloric content but the speed of absorption, which is what scares public health experts. Inhalation is a faster way to deliver intoxicants to the brain, so smoking alcohol produces a quicker and more intense high than drinking it. There is also speculation that alcohol might break down the outside of cells in the lungs, and inhalation bypasses the liver, which helps protect the body from the effects of large doses of alcohol. On the other hand, some cannabis enthusiasts believe that smoking is the safer delivery method for marijuana, because the delayed intoxication of pot brownies can fool the user into underestimating how much he has already consumed. The same argument may apply to smoking alcohol, although it’s unlikely those benefits could outweigh the other risks.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer

Explainer thanks Michael Fingerhood of Johns Hopkins Medicine, Michael Jensen of the Mayo Clinic, Marion Nestle of New York University, and Dale Schoeller of the University of Wisconsin.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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