Home Secretary urged to ban consumer sales of laughing gas

Nitrous oxide is increasingly bought in large canisters. Credit: PA

By Content Producer Narbeh Minassian

Sales of laughing gas should be banned, the home secretary has been told, as admissions to hospital continue to rise.

Nitrous oxide – also known as laughing gas – is now the second most used drug among 16-24-year-olds in the UK, with large canisters intended only for caterers available to buy in some corner shops.

Doctors told ITV News earlier this year they are witnessing a relatively large increase in patients suffering from nitrous oxide abuse, which can cause paralysis or even death in extreme cases.

The British Compressed Gases Association (BCGA) has written to Suella Braverman, the new Home Secretary, urging her to scrap direct-to-consumer retail sales of nitrous oxide.

Ellen Daniels, BCGA chief executive, said: “We congratulate the new Home Secretary on her appointment and hope that she will continue to engage with us regarding the health and social harms posed by nitrous oxide and consider whether retail sales of the gas should be banned.”

Nitrous oxide canisters can be bought in shops.

Last year, the Home Office asked the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to review the gas’ harm as the government sought advice on whether to make its possession a crime.

Nitrous oxide’s availability has concerned Stephen Ream, chief executive of Re-Solv, a charity that helps people suffering from solvent abuse, but cautioned over a ban.

“We would like to see what the result of this review says before we take a position on a product ban,” he told ITV News.

“Product bans can be difficult to enforce and might have the unwanted effect of pushing nitrous oxide sales further into the black market, where dealers selling other, more dangerous, substances then have a bigger market of potential customers for their products.”

Users appear to increasingly favour larger canisters of nitrous oxide over smaller “whippets” and therefore inhale a greater volume of the gas.

Some experts believe this is part of the reason behind a spike in hospital admissions and Mr Ream has previously said these containers have roughly 70 times more gas.

He added: “The other tricky issue is determining what products to ban or regulate – is it just the 8g whippets?

“Because as we have seen the market has now expanded with the 615g canisters. Would a consumer ban even be enforceable? All very tricky issues with further ramifications.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 36 deaths in Great Britain associated with nitrous oxide between 2001 and 2016 – more recent statistics are not available.

The sale of nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effects is illegal but it is not a crime to possess the drug. It is also used medically as an anaesthetic, given for instance to women in labour.

A rise in hospital admissions

In August, toxicologist Dr Mark Pucci told ITV News there were just six admissions at Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals Trust between 2015 and 2020 related to the use of nitrous oxide.

Recently, he said, there is one roughly every couple of weeks – with two patients admitted to his ward in one week alone this summer.

Dr David Nichol, a neurologist at the same hospital, told ITV News he welcomed the BCGA statement and said there must be “tighter rules on retailers.”

“From a retailer's point of view, I can’t see why these are so readily available,” he said.

“It's [hospital admissions] got worse since beginning of the year. Cases have been getting worse since the pandemic, but over past six-nine months it’s got a lot worse.”

A blister was left on this teenager's lip after inhaling directly from a canister.

His “hunch”, he said, is that part of the reason for the increase is down to websites freely selling large canisters.

There is the risk of creating a black market with a product ban, he added.

“That's the risk... and I certainly wouldn't criminalise users,” he said. “But there has to be some disruption to the supply chain.”

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "It is unlawful to supply nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effects, with offenders potentially facing a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

"Given concerns about the use of nitrous oxide by young people, the former home secretary sought advice from the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) last year. When the ACMD responds, the government will consider the advice carefully."

If you have been affected by the use of nitrous oxide and want to share your story, email narbeh.minassian@itn.co.uk

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