Nitrous Oxide: Usage trends
Last modified: Saturday, 20. June 2009 - 2:15 pm
Nitrous oxide is difficult to categorize. Technically, it is an inhalant, yet there are several characteristics that set the drug apart from the typical volatile substances that inhalant abusers favor. First, N20 is not as readily accessible as hair spray, glue, household cleaners, and other off-the-shelf huffing chemicals of choice. Secondly, since nitrous oxide is an actual prescription anesthetic, it may have more perceived prestige among users who would look down at most volatile substance abuse as “kid’s stuff.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), nitrous oxide is showing up more frequently at raves, mixed-and-matched with other club drugs like ketamine, ectasy/MDMA, GHB, and LSD. There have also been cases of nitrous oxide abuse in healthcare professionals. Nurses, anesthesiologists, and other medical personnel with easy access to the drug may be at risk of developing dependence problems. According to the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA), over 15% of anesthesia providers (including anesthesiologists and certified registered nurse anesthetists, or CRNAs) are substance abusers.
This abuse is not unique to the United States, either. In late 2001, an investigation was launched into the birthing unit staff at Australia’s Wollongong Hospital. Ten Australian midwives and a physician allegedly took part in a series of “laughing gas parties,” illicitly indulging in the hospital’s supply of nitrous oxide and the sedative temazipan.
Dentists are also at risk. The Talbott Recovery Center, a nationally recognized drug treatment facility that specializes in the rehabilitation of healthcare professionals, suggests that addiction may develop due to the nature of a dentist’s work (i.e., long and sometimes tedious procedures, relative isolation, and the stress of dealing with anxious patients), combined with open access to anesthetic drugs. The Journal of the California Dental Association reports that the most commonly abused drugs among dentists are alcohol, hydrocodone, and nitrous oxide.
Scope and severity
An annual survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that 8.27 million Americans have used nitrous oxide illicitly (not for medical purposes) at least once in their lifetime.
Inhalant abuse as a whole is a growing crisis worldwide. An international study funded and published by NIDA in 1995 (“Epidemiology of Inhalant Abuse: An International Prospective”), reports increasing inhalant abuse in Mexico, Latin America, Nigeria, Asia, the United Kingdom, and Australia. In Latin America alone, over half of the estimated 40 million street children abuse inhalants (primarily glues and solvents).
Age, ethnic, and gender trends
Inhalant abuse starts early. As of 2000, approximately 2.1 million, or 8.9%, of American youths aged 12 to 17 had used some form of inhalant at some time in their lives. “Monitoring the Future,” an annual survey of drug use among youth and young adults conducted by the NIDA and the University of Michigan, reports that one in five eighth graders surveyed in 2000 had used inhalants at least once in their lives, and one in 20 reported use in the prior month. Inhalants are the second most popular class of drugs for eighth graders (marijuana is first) and the third most popular (after marijuana and amphetamines) for tenth graders.
One-third of all inhalant abusers admitted to treatment programs in 1999 had first used inhalants by the age of 12, with an additional 24% reporting first use by age 14. Overall, the general use of inhalants decreases with age, with 9% of eighth graders reporting inhalant use in the past year compared to just 2% of young adults (in the “National Household Drug Use Survey 2000”).
Nitrous oxide use, however, follows the opposite trend. In 2000, 456,000 children ages 12-17 reported use in the prior 12 months, in comparison to over 2.6 million between the ages of 18 and 25, and 5.1 million adults age 26 or older. This may be due to N20’s growing status as a club drug.