The Breathometer: Drinking Tool or Party Game?

plugged into an iPhone
plugged into an iPhone
D Solmonson

The Breathometer is a small, battery-powered device that hooks into your cell phone's audio jack and, in concert with a free downloadable app, reads your blood alcohol content after you breathe into the sensor. Marketed as the Smart Breathalyzer, the Breathometer's website notes that it's FDA-registered and comparable to other high-end breathalyzers, which presumably means those like the BACtrackS80 or AlcoHAWK. 

The slip-in-your-pocket Breathometer - which was funded after being pitched on Shark Tank -  uses an AAA battery that lasts roughly 75 BAC tests. It can be shared with other people, it's portable and, well, it's kind of fun. Just plug the Breathometer into your iOS (must support iOS 7) or select Android audio headphone jack, open the mobile app (free download) and breathe into the lit LED hole in the device for 5 seconds.  Then, just wait for the results to display on your phone's screen. 

After a long night of spirited socializing, we should all ask ourselves how drunk we are and whether we should get out on the road. The Breathometer aims to address this issue, but the bottom line with any of these devices is whether it works. During a recent night on the town, we gave it a whirl. 

The screen displays simple information including your blood alcohol level (with comments like: "Some alcohol has been detected" or "Don't even think about it"), as well as how long it will take for you to get sober. There is even a push-button service to catch a taxi when you're too drunk to drive, which we did not test.

The Breathometer claims to be accurate +/- 0.01 @ 0.02 % BAC. Of course, the website also states that the machine's readings are "an estimate, so please be sure to check again and always use your best judgment before driving!"  The latter sounds a lot like a cop-out on the company's part, or maybe it's just their way of protecting themselves from lawsuits.  Either way, it's not much of an endorsement by the company of its own product. 

So does this thing actually work? Yes. Sort of. The Breathometer certainly gives readings that are, to some degree, accurate. But then, accurate is a relative term. (Check out the Amazon reviews and you'll find people who call it the Holy Grail of Boozing as well as those who decry its ineffectiveness.) In truth, there is a lot of room for error.

For instance, one of the women in our group did a test shortly after she had sipped directly out of a bottle of mezcal. Result: 0.2%, in the range for blackouts and perhaps worse, depending on one's weight, if that is actually how much alcohol is in one's system. The 0.2 reading came up again for someone who had had two shots of booze and sipped a few cocktails in a relatively short time.)

For reference, a few days later, this author also achieved both a .2 and a .12 reading (see photo below) by doing an energetic gargle and swish for about 20 seconds with Listerine and then testing after each time.

after swishing with Listerine
after swishing with Listerine
D Solmonson

In contrast, another party-goer, who had been drinking casually since 7 p.m. but also sipping water all evening, racked up a 0.02 around 1 a.m. And, after a three hour period, one of the gang who had frequent sips of various drinks but hadn't finished an entire drink was clocked at .00. After another four hours of actually drinking and finishing roughly two entire drinks, that same person was measured at .05, with the Breathometer advising to "be cautious." There were clearly a lot of vagaries, especially when taking into account factors such as body weight, alcohol tolerance and gender (men and women metabolize alcohol differently) - none of which the Breathometer can chart.

That phrase "be cautious" might be applied to this entire subject. Whether you rely on the Breathometer or your own internal Drunk-o-meter, common sense - not a portable BAC - should always be your guide. The reason that tools like this sell is because there are plenty of people who don't use common sense and who need a visual reminder of their own irresponsibility. The real question is: Would someone that drunk even pay attention to what the device says? Sadly, probably not.

Is the Breathometer worth the $50 price tag? Yes and no. It does, with some apparent degree of accuracy, clue you in to the fact that maybe you should stop shooting and start sipping if you want to get home safely. For that reason, the Breathometer team deserves a nod. And there's no question that it's a great conversation starter if you're looking for a way to break the ice at a party or bar. (If you saw someone blowing into a gizmo on their phone, wouldn't you be curious?)  

Most likely, though, this little tool is a one-trick pony that will go the way of many party games. Drinking responsibly, having friends you can trust and lending a hand to your own pals in need, will keep us all safer.

Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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