Much Abrew About Nothing

Ohio wants to ban a new booze inhaler. The question is: Why bother?

Ohio's only AWOL machine may not be long for this - world.
Ohio's only AWOL machine may not be long for this world.
"Make it more than a quickie," reads the faded sign outside the Stop On Inn, a dark, musky North Olmsted bar with a string of banners inside that look like leftovers from last Fourth of July. A man onstage croons about his broken heart as the horde at the bar cheers the Indians on TV.

At the door, Rob Knopf enthusiastically greets the couple that's just walked in. "So good to meet you," says the black-haired, bulbous-nosed owner, whose partly buttoned black-and-white shirt evokes the attire of a pro bowler. He extends a pumping handshake, then ushers them to a corner, where a concealed contraption shares space with an electronic poker game. Knopf whisks away a black cloth to reveal a futuristic tangle of green plastic tubing capped by a mouthpiece, attached to a big black box.

"This," he announces proudly, "is AWOL" -- an "Alcohol With Out Liquid" machine. It converts liquor into a vaporized, inhalable mist.

AWOL, Knopf says, is the "newest" and "biggest" thing in booze consumption. Simply pour a shot into the vaporizer, watch as it mixes with oxygen, inhale, and poof!

"It gives you a totally different type of feeling," he explains. "It's a combination alcohol-and-oxygen buzz."

Knopf pours a shot of Jose Cuervo into AWOL. As the tequila mixes with oxygen, the plastic tubing fills with bubbles. He urges the woman to take a hit. She inhales sharply and immediately starts to cough.

"Try to breathe it into your lungs," Knopf says, sounding very much like a teenager talking a friend through her first cigarette.

She coughs again.

"It's OK; you've probably never tried anything like this before," he finally says.

There's a reason for this. Knopf's AWOL machine is the only one in Ohio, and he's the only man in the state licensed to sell them. Soon, there may be nobody.

On April 20, the Ohio Legislature introduced a bill that, if passed, will make it illegal to sell AWOL-type devices or even to use them. Known as House Bill 211, it might as well be called the Anti-Knopf Bill.

"It's un-American," Knopf says. "It's a travesty; lawmakers can destroy business opportunities without any idea at all of the products they're trying to ban."

Indeed, AWOL arrives with a robust air of mystery.

The machine was created two years ago by a British man who used to work in trendy oxygen bars. Inhaling oxygen yields a sense of giddy lightheadedness, like the feeling one gets after releasing a sneeze that was held in too long. The inventor took the concept one step further -- mixing oxygen with liquor, resulting in a buzz he claims is carb-free, hangover-free, and lower in calories than liquid booze. (Medical experts note that all ethanol is low in calories and free of carbs; they are divided on the hangover claim.)

AWOL took off in England, and a North Carolina company bought the American franchising rights in 2004. Knopf, who learned about the machines on the internet last summer, was hooked immediately: He paid $69,000 for distribution rights in Ohio and California.

"I'm kind of impulsive," says the former engineer.

Knopf intended to sell commercial units to bars for $2,595 and to individuals for $299. His combined sales thus far: $0.

This, Knopf believes, is the result of his own selectivity. "I want people who are going to represent the company well."

U.S. legislators are not so enthusiastic: Ohio is among 18 states seeking to outlaw AWOL, and a federal bill aims to suspend sales of the machine until the Food and Drug Administration rules on its safety.

Critics claim that because AWOL sends alcohol directly into the bloodstream, users get drunk much faster than those who drink normal shots.

"AWOL is the alcoholic equivalent of crack," says Jordan Stoick, spokesman for U.S. Representative Robert Beauprez (R-Colorado), who authored the federal bill. "You're snorting alcohol without the natural process of filtering through the liver." Beauprez can cite no instances of harm caused by AWOL machines, but the representative has "read articles of people who describe them as quite potent," says Stoick.

Scott Oelslager has read them too. The Ohio representative (R-Canton) has never seen an AWOL machine, other than in internet pictures. He authored House Bill 211 anyway.

"We do not need another device that makes people intoxicated," he says, citing claims that AWOL "is 10 times harsher on the individual."

AWOL's website points out that there is no evidence suggesting the device poses any more risk than conventional drinking. No studies have been done to measure how fast AWOL intoxicates users.

"It takes 15 minutes for the shot of alcohol to get fully vaporized and for you to breathe it in," says Knopf. "Someone who wants to recklessly abuse alcohol is not going to wait 15 minutes." He also limits use of the machine to two shots per person each night.

Oelslager argues that AWOL tricks Breathalyzer tests. This claim, too, has met opposition.

"Once alcohol enters the body, the physiology is the same," says Sergeant Mike Kilbane of the North Olmsted Police Department. "You're still injecting alcohol. It still gets absorbed into the bloodstream, and it will still be detected on a Breathalyzer. It's just a different method of getting alcohol on board." North Olmsted police have had no problems relating to Knopf's AWOL machine, and Kilbane sees no reason to banish it from the Stop On Inn.

For now, a clerical goof has bought Knopf more time: Oelslager inadvertently submitted his bill with the wrong co-sponsor names. He is now drafting a new version.

The congressman admits that he doesn't know how many Ohio bars use AWOL; he is relieved to learn there is only one. "Well, that's a good thing," he says. "Then we can shut it down so no one else can use it."

So far, overuse of AWOL has not been Knopf's problem. In two months at the Stop On Inn, it's seen less action than the poker machine.

"Hey, Chris, wanna try?" Knopf asks a balding man in a Hawaiian shirt one night in May.

"Can you put beer in it?"

"No, but I can put in some Jack."

"No thanks," Chris says, holding up a brew. "I've got my beverage."