More than 350,000 young people have used "hippy crack", or the laughing gas nitrous oxide, as a party and festival drug in the past year, according to Home Office figures.
Annual figures on drug misuse show that 6% of all 16- to 24-year-olds reported using nitrous oxide – which is technically legal – in the last year, making it second only to cannabis as the most popular drug among teenagers and young adults.
The figures confirm widespread anecdotal reports that sniffing balloons full of the gas has become the summer recreational drug of choice, particularly for festivalgoers.
At £1.50 a hit and provoking uncontrollable laughter and hallucinations, it is regarded a cheap way of getting high, but there are serious concerns about long-term health effects. Celebrity users have allegedly included Prince Harry.
The 2012/13 findings from the official crime survey of England and Wales also show that the long-term decline in the use of illicit drugs has continued. The proportion of adults who admitted using any drug in the past 12 months was down to 8.2% – equating to about 2.7 million people – from a peak of 12.3% in 2003/04.
The scale of decline is even sharper among teenagers and young adults, with the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds using any illicit drug in the last 12 months falling from a peak of 31% in 1998 to 16% this year. Cannabis remains the most popular drug among teenagers and young adults, with 13% saying they had used it in the past year.
The increasingly unfashionable nature of illicit drug use is reflected in a generational difference in attitudes to drug-taking and to drinking. The crime survey shows that the younger generation appears to be growing less tolerant of dope smoking among their peers. Only 34% of teenagers aged 16-19 said it was acceptable for people of their own age use cannabis frequently or occasionally, compared with 40% of 20- to 35-year-olds.
People are far more tolerant of drunkenness, with three-quarters of all adults saying it was acceptable to get drunk occasionally. However, only 5% said it was acceptable to get drunk frequently.
The emergence of nitrous oxide as the second most popular drug among teenagers and young adults follows a decision to add a new category of "emerging legal highs" to the annual survey of drug misuse.
The findings reveal that 2% of 16- to 24-year-olds have used salvia, a legal herbal high that can produce hallucinations.
Mephedrone use has declined from 1.1% of all adults in 2011/12, before it became illegal, to 0.5% in 2012/13.
Nitrous oxide is legal as it is widely used for medical and industrial purposes but it is unlawful to be sold by an unlicensed dealer for recreational purposes. It is generally sold in cartridges for use in whipped cream dispensers used in commercial catering.
In the 18th century aristocratic "laughing gas parties" became popular shortly after James Watt invented a novel machine to produce "factitious airs", or nitrous oxide, in 1794.
A Home Office spokesperson said: "Nitrous oxide is a legal substance which has a number of legitimate medical and industrial uses but any suggestion of abuse, particularly by young people is of concern. Like all drugs there are health risks and nitrous oxide should not be experimented with.
"Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne wrote to summer festival organisers earlier this year highlighting the government's concerns about the availability of nitro."