A neurologist says nitrous oxide is “more dangerous than cocaine” – and some kids are taking 150 canisters a day.
The substance – commonly known laughing gas or nos – is one of the most commonly-used drugs among 16-24 year olds in England, the government says.
Dr David Nicholl, consultant neurologist and clinical lead at City Hospital in Birmingham, says he now sees more patients struggling with side effects of ‘nangs’ than cocaine abuse.
He said the volume youngsters are taking the substance has rocketed since the pandemic.
Nitrous oxide, which is sold in single-use silver canisters, is dispensed into balloons and inhaled to create a temporary feeling of relaxation and euphoria.
Heavy regular use can lead to a range of side effects which include dizziness, weakness in the legs and impaired memory.
Dr Nicholl said: “I’ve been a neurologist for 21 years and have seen a definite change in how it’s being used, since the pandemic.
“Compared to before, now the volumes of nitrous oxide being consumed can be quite terrifying – up to 150 cylinders per day.
“It’s perceived as safe – and terms like ‘laughing gas’ are especially unhelpful because it makes it sound trivial.”
He said the versions sold on the street aren’t safe for human consumption, as it isn’t the same as what is sold in hospitals.
He supports the recent decision from the UK’s drug advisory panel not to ban the drug following talks.
But he says a different approach needs to be taken to tackle the issue – targeting the supply at the source.
Dr Nicholl explained it is easily accessible through places like corner shops and on social media – where sellers target their audience of 16-24 year olds.
He said street sellers are getting more and more savvy about their sales – to the point that it resembles an “organised crime group”.
A big problem, Dr Nicholl explained, is that it can be sold legally – if it is going to be used for whipping cream, such as in cafes and restaurants.
But when it becomes available for the wrong purposes, it can have disastrous consequences – and Dr Nicholl sees this all too often.
“There is existing legislation to attack the supply chain but people can say ‘I’m getting it for whipping cream’,” he said, speaking about the UK.
“Although – I’ve yet to find an actual chef who uses it for that purpose.”
He considers nitrous oxide “a bigger health risk than cocaine” at the moment due to how prevalent it is.
Dr Nicholl said: “I have a patient every few years because of cocaine, but one every week due to nitrous oxide.”
A recent study by the research agency OnePoll found 50 per cent of people are unaware that it can cause serious health problems such as nerve damage or – in extreme cases – paralysis.
Despite this, roughly 40 per cent of users said they had suffered the side-effects such as anaemia, cognitive impairment and chronic headaches.
Dr Nicholl believes the best approach to curbing nitrous oxide use is through education and targeting the supply chain.
In Australia, there is a big crackdown on the items being sold with Perth being named the ‘nang capital’ of the country when a survey found 70 per cent of people had used the objects to get high within six months, NCA reported.
Last year, the state‘s Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson slammed the use of the canisters, describing them as “incredibly dangerous and poisonous, particularly for young brains that are still developing” when used for personal inhalation.
“There is some evidence there is an increase in young people using nitrous oxide and some anecdotal evidence from emergency departments where physicians are seeing an increase in some chronic users of nitrous oxide with some really significant neurodegenerative issues,” Ms Sanderson said.
The new measures hoped to halt the number of young people using nangs include restricting sales of the items to those over 16 as well as putting mandatory “poison” labels on all canisters.
Officials will also perform random spot checks on retailers and delivery services to ensure that they are complying with the rule changes.
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