Targeting Temptation

The puritanical impulse behind alcohol vaporizer bans and anti-drug vaccines


Since it was introduced to Americans last summer, the European fad of inhaling liquor vapor through a contraption known as AWOL (for Alcohol Without Liquid) has not exactly taken the country by storm. But AWOL's absence has not stopped legislators from trying to ban it.

"It's not something I wanted to see proliferate throughout the state," a co-sponsor of Florida's proposed ban explained to the The Miami Herald last month. "We're getting ahead of the curve here."

Not as far ahead as Kansas and Colorado legislators, who voted to ban the alcohol vaporizers while their Florida counterparts were still dithering. At least a dozen states are mulling AWOL bans, so if you're waiting to inhale, it may be a long wait.

The objections to AWOL reflect a longstanding American discomfort with intoxication and, more generally, with pleasure that seems to come too easily. One of AWOL's main selling points is freedom from hangovers, which its detractors consider an invitation to excess: If you're not miserable the next day, how do you know when you've had too much?

In its defense, AWOL's U.S. distributor says the machine "has a built-in safety device because it takes about 20 minutes to inhale one vaporizer shot of alcohol (about 1/2 actual shot size)." The company also quotes a British Health Department official's statement that there's no evidence AWOL "poses particular risks to the user over and above the risks that may be posed by consuming an equivalent amount of alcohol in an equivalent time period in a more traditional way."

Perhaps surprisingly, distillers are among the most vocal opponents of AWOL, which does not fit well with their desire to project a responsible image or their attempts to market brands based on taste. Peter Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, told the Herald AWOL's marketing "would strongly suggest that the purpose of this device is to get a buzz. We don't think getting a buzz is a good idea."

That remark reminded me of an interview that ABC's John Stossel conducted several years ago with Thomas Constantine, then head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Constantine claimed illegal drugs are different from alcohol because people use them "for a single purpose…the purpose of becoming high," which is "wrong" and "dangerous." Stossel responded that "when I have a glass of gin or vodka, I'm doing it to get a little buzz on. That buzz is bad?"

Yes, according to the puritanical outlook that continues to have a strong influence on American politics, that buzz is bad—so bad that people who are in the business of helping us chemically adjust our moods and minds have to pretend they're not. That's why distillers are so uncomfortable at seeing their products consumed in a manner reminiscent of marijuana and opium, through a device that looks like a high-tech hookah.

This suspicion of intoxication, of unearned pleasure, is also evident in the plans inspired by research on "vaccines" that are aimed at discouraging drug use by taking all the fun out of it. The anti-drug vaccines, which are being developed by several companies, stimulate the production of antibodies that bind with psychoactive molecules and prevent them from passing the blood-brain barrier.

This month Zurich-based Cytos Biotechnology announced clinical trial results that suggest its anti-nicotine vaccine—which is only partially effective at neutralizing the drug's effects and stimulates a stronger immune response in some people than in others—may be modestly helpful for smokers trying to quit. But drug warriors in the U.S. and Britain dream of going much further than such voluntary self-help, imagining vaccines they could force on drug offenders or use to inoculate children against addiction as adults.

The premise underlying such schemes is that the best way to prevent sin is to eliminate temptation, that desire should be neither moderated nor resisted but suppressed. In the case of gluttony, for example, the solution would be to preserve hunger for the sake of physical survival but eliminate any enjoyment of taste so as to discourage overeating and obesity.

This does not seem like a good way to inculcate virtue. Nor is it terribly practical: Life is full of temptations, and it is doubtful that the government will be able to inoculate us against all of them. More to the point, who would want to live in a world where it did?