By Amy Bracken
It's the third most popular drug in middle school and it can kill on first use. Yet parents and youth workers rarely guard against the abuse of inhalants, which are found in most households and classrooms, and in many youth-serving agencies.
Federal drug officials and anti-drug activists gathered in Washington, D.C., last month to raise awareness of inhalant abuse, or "huffing," which is practiced by over one million teens annually, according to the nonprofit National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC), based in Austin, Tex.
The good news is that education programs to curb inhalant abuse appear to be effective; the bad news is that some of those effective programs have been cut.
More than 1,000 household products - such as lighter fluid, glue, aerosol, stove fuel and typing correction fluid - fall under the definition of "inhalants." Their ready availability is one reason for their popularity, especially as a "gateway" drug for youths who have not tried other drugs. Inhalants rank third among middle schoolers after tobacco and alcohol, and fourth among high schoolers (with marijuana moving ahead), according to NIPC.
The coalition joined other anti-drug groups and U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Administrator Nelba Chavez in promoting the seventh annual National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week (March 19-25). Among the revelations that they hope will get youth workers, educators and parents to focus more attention on the problem:
*The age of first use has been dropping steadily for decades. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to SAMHSA, the rate of first use by youths ages 12-17 was 6 percent. That rose to 8-to-10 percent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 805,000 youths used inhalants for the first time in 1996, more than double 1991's figure.
*Many youths don't realize that unlike most popular drugs, inhalants can easily kill in a single use. "Experimenting with inhalants is akin to playing Russian Roulette," said NIPC Executive Director Harvey Weiss. In addition, repeated use damages memory, hearing and other brain functions, bone marrow, limb control, liver, kidney, heart and fetal tissue.
*Education has been effective at reducing inhalant abuse among youth. Children are 50 percent less likely to huff if their parents talk to them about the dangers of inhalants, Weiss said. In addition, government-sponsored education programs appear to have significant impact.
Texas saw a 50 percent reduction in inhalant use among elementary school students between 1990 and 1994 - the same period that the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA) funded an aggressive inhalant abuse prevention program carried out by the NIPC. Funding was eliminated in 1995. The Texas commission reports that grade school student inhalant use increased by 50 percent from 1994 to 1998.
In Minnesota, inhalant use rates declined during the years that Eden Children and Family Services, a nonprofit inhalant prevention, education and intervention program, ran an inhalant awareness effort. That program, funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services since 1989, was eliminated in last year's legislative session. However, the human services agency used discretionary money to keep the program going.
Massachusetts saw inhalant use among middle schoolers increase 89 percent between 1990 and 1993, then drop slightly. In 1995 the Massachusetts Department of Public Health created the Massachusetts Inhalant Abuse Task Force, which launched a statewide campaign the following year to raise public awareness through the distribution of educational brochures and videos.
The results will not be clear until a statewide public school survey covering 1996 through 1999 becomes available later this year. But Howard Wolfe, a task force member and senior consultant at the Youth Support Services division of Cambridge and Somerville Program for Alcohol Rehabilitation, said, "I expect significant drops."
Why are inhalants so popular, and, in some cases, increasingly so? Wolfe points to an increase over the past 15 years in household products that contain solvents and gases, thus increasing the availability of a high that kids can easily find, don't have to sneak into the home, and that's cheap or free.
Director Mark Groves of Eden Children and Family Services, in Minneapolis, blames the phenomenon on social factors, including the fast-paced American lifestyle. "We're not engaging kids as we were in the past," he said.
Contact: National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (800) 269-4237; Eden Children and Family Services (612) 338-2158.