Laughing gas usage in UK highest in global survey

Survey of 20 countries found use of nitrous oxide on the rise, with the former legal high being most popular in the UK

The biggest study of the use of nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas and often inhaled from balloons, has found it is soaring in many countries including the UK and that a small minority of people are at risk of developing neurological problems.

The Global Drug Survey 2016 of more than 100,000 people who report ever using drugs found that 17,000 of them had tried nitrous oxide and 8,500 – or 8.5% of the total – had used it in the last year, which was up from 6.5% in last year’s survey.

The drug was more popular in the UK than in any other of the 19 countries surveyed. More than half of those who responded to the survey this year (51.3%) said they had used it at some point before and 38% had used it in the past 12 months. That compares with 38% and 23.7% respectively in 2015’s figures.

Most people inhaled the gas from a balloon, but 13% got it from a whipped cream dispenser available in the supermarket – the gas is used to make cream light and fluffy. A small minority (0.6%) inhaled it from a plastic bag, risking asphyxiation, and 0.8% inhaled it directly from the gas bulbs – the small canisters of gas used in a cream dispenser, which can lead to burns from the freezing temperature of the gas as it leaves the bulb.

Most people – 72% – used the gas at house parties, while 48% used it at festivals. A quarter had only used it once. Half had used it between two and 10 times, while 1% had used it on more than 100 days in the past year.

Of the 8,000 people reporting using the drug in 2016, just less than a third experienced hallucinations and confusion, 12% had nausea and 2.5% said they had some sort of accident. They were also asked about the long-term effects – those lasting for more than two weeks. A small minority had numbness around the face and mouth or in their hands and feet.

Adam Winstock, the consultant psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist who founded the survey, said: “Four percent of people were reporting persistent numbness and tingling in their fingers and toes.”

Regular, frequent users, are at risk of peripheral neuropathy, although it is reversible.

He added: “It’s not that this drug is dangerous but if you are taking it at that sort of level, it will deplete your levels of vitamin B12.”

He advises that meat, fish eggs and cheese or fortified soy products for vegetarians will help.

The Global Drug Survey 2016 was conducted in partnership with global media partners including the Guardian.


Sarah Boseley

The GuardianTramp

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