Volatile substance abuse – a problem that never went away

August 8, 2018 by Harry Sumnall And Sarah J Maclean, The Conversation

Deodorants and aerosols are also categorised as volatile substances which can be abused. Credit: Shutterstock/Butus
Drug related deaths are now at their highest levels since records began in England and Wales. In 2017, there were 56 ecstasy deaths, each new tragedy generating headlines and leading to calls for action, such as the introduction of drug checking in nightclubs and festivals. But others are abusing a different range of substances, a problem that many people think largely disappeared in the 1980s and has been ignored in all the headlines.

Volatile substance abuse (VSA) comprises inhalation of volatile compounds in chemical – such as glues, paints, spray deodorants and fuels – for their psychoactive effects. These substances are derided as a cheap high and use is stigmatised in comparison to other drugs. But users report that it can be pleasurable, as well as an effective means of self-medicating pain and low mood.

As are marked for household or industrial purposes, they are readily available. Misuse is covered by the same laws designed to prevent supply of new psychoactive substances.

VSA use peaks in early adolescence and declines with age. In England in 2016, 11% of 11- to 15-year-olds reported having been offered volatile substances and 4.4% of respondents reported they had used them at least once in the 12 months prior to the survey – more than any other drug apart from cannabis. Furthermore, 61% of pupils who first tried a substance at the age of 11 or younger reported that this was a volatile substance.

Since 2001 there have been 834 deaths related to these substances in Britain and 64 in 2016 alone – on a par with the number associated with ecstasy use. But VSA deaths do not not simply affect . In terms of mortality, deaths of young people have declined and almost half of all VSA deaths are now of adults between the ages of 20 and 39.

The response to VSA in the UK is fragmented and a more coordinated approach to data collection, prevention, treatment and supply reduction is needed. First, we need better data on use and associated harms.

England, for example, no longer collects data on use of most products in adults. Public Health England reports that 359 individuals presenting to drug treatment services in 2016/17 declared use of "solvents."

The SACKI warning logo. Credit: The British Aerosol Manufacturers' Association (BAMA)
"Not real drugs'

But this is likely to be an underestimate because charities and treatment providers tell us that pathways into treatment are hampered by stigma and therefore users are often unwilling to seek help. There is a perception from some users and providers that these substances are not considered "real drugs" and a lack of routine assessment by treatment workers and healthcare professionals means that a history of VSA is often missed by treatment and other health services.

Little is known about how to effectively prevent VSA and treat users. Although there is some tentative evidence to support the use of individual counselling, family therapies and residential activity and engagement programmes, few providers have the skills or resources to offer these solutions.

Industry's key role

The solvents industry has a key role to play in risk reduction. In the UK – and in keeping with cigarette labelling – this has led to the introduction of the SACKI logo (Solvent Abuse Can Kill Instantly) carried on almost all aerosol products. Manufacturers should be encouraged to continue looking for ways to make their products harder to misuse.

One way of doing this is to replace harmful chemicals in products, as has been done in the European Union, for example with the removal of the liquid solvent toluene from consumer spray paints and glues. Technical advances might enable other manufacturers to reformulate their products, or to market consumer products in smaller sizes to make heavy consumption more difficult.

Retailers, including the online giants, also have an important role to play. In addition to complying with existing law, retailers should only allow single purchases of products such as lighter fluid. In-store and online signage and displays should not draw attention to products or offer promotions on products that might be misused. Staff and systems should also be trained to identify customers who might be misusing products and shop design and product location should be considered as a way to reduce thefts.

These substances are not "glamorous" and their use is not associated with fashionable clubs, festivals or modern cultural movements. Few in the media demand that government "does more" in response to the harm they do. Nevertheless, the health and social harms of VSA are significant.

The total societal cost to the public purse in England and Wales has been estimated to be £346m every year. Intensive and regular VSA is strongly associated with acute social and economic disadvantage. In the UK, 12% of those dying after use had at some time lived in care. The relative lack of attention paid to volatile and the harm they can cause suggests that society may value the people who use them even less than those who snort cocaine, inject heroin, smoke cannabis, or swallow prescription drugs.

Explore further: Medical cannabis users could still be criminalised in UK despite government accepting its benefits

Related Stories

Medical cannabis users could still be criminalised in UK despite government accepting its benefits

July 24, 2018
Cannabis is high on the agenda at the moment. Not only have California and Canada passed new laws to legalise marijuana, but in the UK, two recent high profile medical cases have forced the issue of medical cannabis right ...

Annual deaths from solvent abuse in the UK rise from 38 to 46

November 16, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—Deaths from solvent abuse rose to 46 in 2009 from 38 in 2008, according to a new report on the latest UK figures released today (Friday 16 November).

Deaths from the use of heroin have hit a grim milestone

October 24, 2017
Researchers have found that deaths from heroin and morphine use now make up more than half of all reported drug-related deaths.

FDA warns against risks of contaminated synthetic cannabis

July 24, 2018
(HealthDay)—Users of synthetic marijuana products and health care providers should be aware of the risk of bleeding associated with contamination of synthetic cannabinoid products with brodifacoum, according to the U.S. ...

Synthetic drug use rapidly rising in Europe, report finds

May 28, 2013
New synthetic psychoactive substances are making their way into Europe where the Internet is becoming a big challenge in the fight against illicit drugs, the continent's drug agency warned Tuesday.

Drug-related deaths are at their highest level in 25 years – here's why

August 2, 2017
According to new data from the UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS), last year saw the highest number of drug-related deaths since records began in 1993. Over half of these deaths involved an opiate such as heroin. Those ...

Recommended for you

Juul e-cigarettes pose addiction risk for young users, study finds

October 19, 2018
Teens and young adults who use Juul brand e-cigarettes are failing to recognize the product's addictive potential, despite using it more often than their peers who smoke conventional cigarettes, according to a new study by ...

Adding refined fiber to processed food could have negative health effects

October 19, 2018
Adding highly refined fiber to processed foods could have negative effects on human health, such as promoting liver cancer, according to a new study by researchers at Georgia State University and the University of Toledo.

Medicating distress: Risky sedative prescriptions for older adults vary widely

October 18, 2018
Despite years of warnings that older adults shouldn't take sedative drugs that put them at risk of injury and death, a new study reveals how many primary care doctors are still prescribing them, how often, and exactly where.

Self-lubricating latex could boost condom use: study

October 17, 2018
A perpetually unctuous, self-lubricating latex developed by a team of scientists in Boston could boost the use of condoms, they reported Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

How healthy will we be in 2040?

October 17, 2018
A new scientific study of forecasts and alternative scenarios for life expectancy and major causes of death in 2040 shows all countries are likely to experience at least a slight increase in lifespans. In contrast, one scenario ...

Medical management of opioid-induced constipation differs from other forms of condition

October 17, 2018
Traditional laxatives are recommended as first-line agents to treat patients with a confirmed diagnosis of opioid-induced constipation (OIC), according to a new guideline from the American Gastroenterological Association ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.