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Health: Drunk? But not a drop passed my lips]: Did you know that you can get tipsy simply by breathing in the fumes from other people's booze? Rob Stepney looks at the risks and possibilities of passive drinking

FED UP with passive smoking at parties? Why not try passive drinking instead? It may sound improbable - and do not expect a traffic policeman to believe you at the roadside - but it seems that significant amounts of alcohol can enter the body simply by breathing in the fumes.

I was alerted to this possibility following a publisher's party last Christmas in Oxford. The woman charged with dispensing the simmering punch for the entire evening touched not a drop of her own concoction. Honestly, officer. But she felt distinctly odd by the end of the party, and woke next morning with a hell of a hangover.

A second incident, a chance encounter with an American over the Atlantic, somewhere between Chicago and London, roused my interest further. This man said distillery workers are convinced that inhalation is one route to intoxication. He had spent a year in Lynchburg, Tennessee, working for Jack Daniels. Did he become high from breathing the whisky? 'We were high every night after the shift,' he said, 'even in the bottling plant where there were huge extractors to take away the fumes.'

Cooks are familiar with the idea that alcohol evaporates from a pot during heating. It simply disappears into thin air. For this reason, too much coq au vin, though a perfect description of inebriated impropriety, has never been a convincing excuse for it.

Those with illicit stills in outhouses know perfectly well that the products of heated homemade wine can be collected and condensed, with the appropriate apparatus. So why should not alcohol vapour that is breathed condense in the lungs?

A textbook that is a bible in the matter of drugs, Gaddum's Pharmacology (Oxford University Press, written by Sir John Gaddum in 1940 and updated ever since) is clear that inhalation is an option for taking alcohol on board. After noting rather prissily that alcohol is an anaesthetic, a disinfectant and an irritant, Gaddum admits that in 'discreet doses' it can also be regarded as a valuable tranquilliser, absorbed either from the stomach or as vapour through the lungs.

Dr Peter Taberner, senior lecturer in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Bristol Medical School, has worked on methods of measuring alcohol levels in the body. One of these was to analyse the alcohol content of fluid that bathes the eye. This option, involving the use of an eye patch, was intended for people brought to hospital too drunk to co-operate with a breath test or blood sample. Dr Taberner thinks that one would have to work rather hard to inhale enough alcohol to become intoxicated. But it could be done.

'Glue contains organic solvents similar to ethanol, and clearly they can be inhaled. You can also certainly get an immediate buzz from inhaling alcohol fumes,' he says. 'If you heated alcohol and had a towel over your head, as if you were taking a cold cure, it would be possible to breathe in enough to have a more prolonged effect. But alcohol vapour is an unpleasant irritant to the lungs; drinking it is far easier.' And nicer.

A Scandinavian friend once told me why the Nordic interest in saunas is not completely accounted for by the pleasures of plunging superheated bodies into an ice- cold lake. They know that alcoholic spirit poured on to the smouldering birch twigs can be breathed in to good effect. After all, inhaling is an efficient way of achieving the effect. It takes merely seconds for the desired substance to go from lungs to blood to brain compared to 20 minutes or so when sluggish absorption of the stomach is relied upon as the route.

Inhalation of alcohol fumes has been tried in the laboratory. Researchers managed to raise blood alcohol levels to 10mg per 100ml in tests on volunteers carried out in Germany in the Fifties and in Britain in 1975. That is a significant amount, although well below the legal limit.

But more popular than alcohol inhalation for intoxication has been the practice of sniffing ether. In the last century, both the drinking and inhalation of ether were widespread in central Europe and in Ulster. Ether abuse was introduced to Northern Ireland by an alcoholic physician in Draperstown who had 'taken the pledge' but found in ether an equally effective intoxicant that bypassed the small print. Others followed his example.

So could inhalation of alcohol itself ever become a popular route to intoxication? I doubt it, but it gives a new slant to the idea of a 'quick snifter'.