Inhalants: Usage trends
Last modified: Sunday, 31. May 2009 - 4:34 pm
The Monitoring the Future study (MTF), funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse and conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research since 1975, looks at lifetime, annual, and 30-day use of 13 categories of drugs, including inhalants. For the 2001 survey, more than 44,000 students filled out questionnaires in a nationally representative sample of eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders at private and public schools.
The 2001 MTF study found a continuation of the gradual decline in inhalant abuse that began in 1996 and 1997 among U.S. middle school and high school students. The study found a peak in inhalant use, for all grades, in 1995.
In the spring 2001 MTF study, 9.1% of eighth graders, 6.6% of tenth graders and 4.5% of twelfth graders reported using inhalants the previous year. In contrast, in 1997 11.8% of eighth graders, 8.7% of tenth graders, and 6.7% of twelfth graders reported using inhalants the previous year. In general, the appeal of inhalants appears to peak in middle school.
Lifetime use of inhalants, defined as whether U.S. students had used them at least once at some point in their lives, dropped from 21% of eighth graders in 1997 to 17.1% in 2001.
Paradoxically, fewer twelfth graders reported that they had used inhalants in the past than did eighth graders. Researchers are puzzled by the fact that, over the years, a lower percentage of high school seniors report that they’ve ever used inhalants than do middle-school students. The researcher say the conflicting information may be caused by the fact that older students do not recall everything they did when they were younger; and/or that chronic inhalant abusers drop out of school and thus no longer participate in the survey.
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America sponsored a smaller national survey, the 2000 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, that included 7,290 teenagers in grades seven through 12. In the survey, 13% of students reported using inhalants in the previous year, compared with 11% in 1999. Twenty-one percent said they had tried inhalants at some point in their lives, and 78% percent of the teens said they recognized the deadly consequences of using inhalants. Earlier studies by the same organization found that teens saw dangers in regular use of inhalants, but not in occasional use.
Scope and severity
In looking at how inhalant abuse compares to other drug use, the MTF study found that among eighth graders, 9.1% reported they had used inhalant the previous year, while 41.9% used alcohol, 15.4% reported marijuana/hashish use; and 12.2% used cigarettes.
In its National Drug Threat Assessment 2002, the National Drug Intelligence Center reported that adolescents tend to initially experiment with four substances: alcohol, tobacco, inhalants, and marijuana.
The 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, a SAMHSA project, found that 8.9% of youths aged 12 to 17 — about 2.1 million adolescents — had used inhalants at some time in their lives. In this same age group, 3.9% had used glue, shoe polish, or toluene; and 3.3% reported using gasoline or lighter fluid.
Solvent abuse — particularly toluene-containing products such as gasoline and glue — is common around the world. NIDA considers it “an international public health concern,” and notes that the problem is particularly severe in poor nations with high populations of homeless children. Some researchers have attributed the prevalence of glue sniffing in poverty-stricken countries
to the fact that it offers children an escape from hunger pains and their desperate circumstances.
Glue sniffing exploded in Singapore between 1980 and 1991. The Central Narcotics Bureau of Singapore reported 24 cases of inhalent abuse in 1980. In 1985 the reported cases rose to 1,005. Recently, in South America, researchers found that almost a quarter of children of low-income families in Sao Paulo, Brazil, had inhaled a volatile substance at some time in their lives, and 4.9% had done so within the previous month. In Mexico, researchers who conducted a survey of street children found that 12% had started using glue regularly by the age of nine.
Researchers have found high inhalant use in other countries as well. An estimated 3.5% to 10% of children age 12 and under in the United Kingdom have abused volatile substances; and between 0.5% and 1% have become long-term users. In 1999, Australia’s National Drug & Alcohol Centre secondary school survey of 25,480 students found that 32% of 12-year-old boys and 37% of 12-year-old girls reported that they had used an inhalant at some point.
Sniffing gasoline is also a serious problem among Native Americans in Canada, among young Aborigines in some rural desert communities in Australia, and among street children in Tanzania and Uganda.
The 1999 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs found the following rates of lifetime inhalant use reported by graduating high school students: Ireland, 22%; Greenland, 19%; Malta, 16%; United Kingdom, 15%; Slovenia, 14%; Greece, 14%; Croatia, 13%; Iceland, 11%; France, 11%; Lithuania, 10%; Hungary, 4%; Portugal, 3%; Bulgaria, 3%; and Romania, 2%.
Age, ethnic, and gender trends
Inhalant users typically fall into one of three groups: young experimenters who may use a variety of inhalants and some marijuana and alcohol; abusers who use multiple drugs, with inhalants as a backup to their drug of choice; and chronic adult users. While inhalant use tends to be at its highest during adolescence, some early abusers move from experimentation into regular, long-term use, and some continue to abuse the substances into their 50s and 60s. Those who continue using inhalants at later ages develop more severe social and psychological problems than do those who discontinue use after adolescence.
In a three-year study of inhalant abuse data from poison centers in 45 states, researchers found that inhalant abuse can begin early in childhood — in some reported cases, before the age of six — and peaks in early adolescence. The study, published in the August 2000 issue of the Journal of Toxicology, found that children under age 18 made up 47% of all inhalant abuse patients; and that 31% of all deaths related to inhalant use occurred in youths between the ages of 13 and 19.
Research on gender differences in use of inhalants have produced varying findings. In 1998, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found an even gender split in adolescents (ages 12-17) who experimented with inhalants. However, continued use was more common among older males; the rate of inhalant abuse by males 18 years to 25 years was twice that of their female peers.
Another study, reported by NIDA, found that boys abused inhalants more often than girls in grades four through six. Use evened out in the peak-use years of grades seven through nine; and returned to higher rates for males in grades 10 through 12.
Other researchers have found gender differences in the type of inhalant preferred. For instance, in a Virginia study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse (October 1999), males were significantly more likely than females to abuse gasoline; and females were significantly more likely to abuse hair spray than their male age peers.
Some studies in North America have found the highest rate of inhalant abuse among white and Latino youths, and among Native American youths who live on reservations. The lowest rate of inhalant use is among African-American youths.
In two 1990s studies of high schools in Illinois, published in the November 2000 issue of the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, researchers found that white and Hispanic teens from strong, two-parent families were less likely to abuse inhalants than those from single-parent families; and that Asian students whose academic performance was poor were more likely to use inhalants than “high-achievers” were.
Death resulting from inhalant use is more common in males. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) monitors drug-related deaths as reported by medical examiners in 40 metropolitan areas. In 1999, medical examiners in these cities recorded 129 deaths from inhalants, a 25% increase over the 103 inhalant deaths recorded in 1998. Those who died in 1999 from inhalant use ranged from adolescents to adults age 55 and older, and were predominantly white.
From an socioeconomic perspective, inhalant abuse is most often associated with poverty, but there are abusers in all classes. Older inhalant users may develop abuse problems because they have access to volatile chemicals and anesthetics at the workplace.
The role of community and cultural influences on inhalant use remains uncertain. Some researchers attribute higher use rates among Latinos to poverty, lack of opportunity, and social problems, rather than ethnicity. Others have found traits that distinguish families with greater rates of inhalant abuse, regardless of economic status. Such families may have chaotic lifestyles and with multiple relationship difficulties and other problems. In other cases, the parents may have their own problems with drug and alcohol abuse, or may have either abused their children or lacked strong influence over them. Some parents do not discourage their children from using inhalants or do not disapprove of their children’s peers who abuse the substances.