There has been a considerable amount of press coverage recently around the popularity of taking laughing gas. The media articles appear to be inspired first, in the context of the Psychoactive Substances Bill currently going through Parliament. Secondly it seems it is quite easy to capture celebrities, including footballers, taking it.
News media is rarely a good way of becoming informed about the risks of any particular substance and laughing gas is no exception. I recently did an interview with a local news programme where all my words of reassurance for any parents watching were omitted, in favour of a policeman espousing inaccurate information on health harms. He said ‘one canister can cause an overdose’ which is just plain wrong.
Laughing gas is nitrous oxide, an old-fashioned but still effective anesthetic used mostly during labour as the gas part of ‘gas and air’. The risk of addiction is as good as negligible and overdose is extremely rare. It is inhaled after filling balloons from small metal canisters bought cheaply through the internet. It gives a very short term but intense high. Young people may be more likely to try it after a few drinks, and so adding to the main risk, which is falling over and injuring themselves.
So parents should not categorise this behaviour as high-risk drug taking. Of course, it is not harmless behaviour and it is not a welcome fact that your child has taken something so intoxicating. But neither are they doing anything illegal by possessing it. The law says it should not be sold to anyone under 18 but young people seem to be able to get hold of it quite easily. Last year, one in eight 16-25 year olds took it.
Last month, a friend of mine contacted me having found a few balloons and canisters after his 16-year-old son had a party. I was not surprised he was confused from newspaper reports not least because they invariably call the substance ‘hippy crack’. This phrase is entirely a media invention and is not used by young people at all. But it does imply this a more dangerous drug than it is in reality.
Laughing gas is categorised as a ‘legal high’ but is considerably less risky than others such as synthetic cannabis and stimulant mixtures. Those products can have highly unpredictable effects because a safe dose can be hard to determine. It’s a good idea for parents to raise these issues with their children to ensure they understand the levels of risk, how to best stay safe and look after their friends too.