THE BLOG
05/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How To Launch A Nationwide Drug Menace

Last week, the media was filled with headlines like "Sniffing Trumps Weed for 12 Year Olds," (CBS) and "Inhalant Abuse a Deadly Middle-School Concern," (U.S. News and World Report/HealthDay). The stories came out of a Washington press conference touting news from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that inhalants are more popular with junior high kids than marijuana, cocaine and hallucinogens combined.

Sadly, the same headlines in the 1950's and 60's produced more--not less--inhalant abuse. In fact, the headline on this article is the title of the chapter on the subject from a book written way back in 1972, the classic "Licit and Illicit Drugs," by the editors of Consumer Reports. The chapter, which is online here, illustrates how increases in media coverage preceded rises in local use of inhalants.

The same phenomenon was seen again in the late 1990's with the drug Oxycontin. News accounts about a "deadly new high" appeared first--followed by jumps in use and deaths.

The combination of a potentially deadly high and children will probably always be catnip for the media. But, in the case of inhalants, they never seem to ask why inhalants are the only drugs whose popularity declines as preteens become teenagers and young adults.

Inhalant use is rare in adults--and virtually unheard of among those who aren't living in abject poverty or suffering from severe mental illness. What could account for this? Why would these substances only be popular among little kids, the mentally ill and poor people?

Basically, inhalants--with the exception of nitrous oxide and "poppers"--aren't even really drugs. They don't produce a true "high"--instead, the experience is primarily one of what most people would consider negative "side effects" like dizziness, loss of motor control, nausea and headache.

Most of the effects, in fact, are similar to those from oxygen deprivation--it's not even clear what pharmacological action is involved in producing consciousness change, though the substances used can definitely cause brain damage and death. A non-experienced drug user--like one in junior high--might find the inhalant experience interesting. A poor person might resort to it in desperation.

Someone who can afford and access real drugs like alcohol and marijuana, however, is going to quickly choose them instead. If inhalants actually produced a genuine, addictive experience, we'd expect kids to start on them and stay with them, given that they are cheap, legal and readily available. But that's not what happens--as kids get older, the ones who like getting high overwhelmingly choose marijuana, cigarettes, alcohol or other drugs instead.

Rather than "raising awareness" of the deadly nature of inhalants, we should instead raise awareness of the lousy high involved, perhaps failing to characterize it as a high at all. Inhalants basically produce the experience of brain damage-- not a specific, pharmacological result.

That might not be a popular message with those who want anti-drug campaigns to oppose all use--but it's more likely to work to discourage a potentially fatal and brain-destroying practice among people who are so desperate to escape that they will use virtually anything.

The fact that people seeking escape will resort to things like inhalants--or even choking each other, as the recent reports on the "choking game" suggest-- should also make us think carefully about "supply side" efforts to fight drugs. Among those at real risk for addiction, the desire to get high precedes access to drugs--and getting rid of any particular type of drug isn't going to change this.