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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 April, 2003, 23:18 GMT 00:18 UK
Laughing gas 'craze' revealed
No laughing matter: Drug can cause health problems
Laughing gas is becoming a popular recreational drug, say doctors, who warn of potential health risks from its use.

A survey in New Zealand found one in eight students at a university had used nitrous oxide recreationally.

Cannisters of nitrous oxide are used in some domestic appliances - for example cream dispensing containers - and can be bought easily at hardware stores.

Inhaling the gas can produce hallucinations and disorientation - and overuse has been linked to long-term health problems.

The survey, published in the medical journal The Lancet, involved 1,782 first-year students at the University of Auckland.

More than half of the students said they were aware that nitrous oxide could be used recreationally.

Approximately 12% said they had used it recreationally at some point, and 3% - 39 students - said they were regular users.

Early warning

The authors of the study said that the findings - while not necessarily representative of the population at large - should alert doctors to watch out for nitrous oxide-linked problems in young people.

In particular, heavy nitrous oxide use has been linked to depletion of vitamin B12 and a temporary loss of motor control.

I wouldn't claim it was a particularly harmful drug - but I wouldn't say it was completely without harm as well
Spokesman, Drugscope
One case reported by the Lancet involved degeneration of the spinal cord linked to its use.

The authors, from the department of neurology at the University of Auckland, wrote: "Nitrous oxide is not routinely included in drug education programmes

"Generally, few students were aware of the potential acute or chronic ill effects from use of this substance."

A spokesman for UK charity Drugscope said that nitrous oxide use was not illegal in the UK.

He said: "I wouldn't claim it was a particularly harmful drug - but I wouldn't say it was completely without harm as well.

"No drugs are harmless."

There is, however, a history of the popularity of nitrous oxide use in the UK.

In Victorian times, the use of this, and other anaesthetic gases, was a popular pastime.

Many medical students down the years have also sampled it, owing to ease of access to the drug in a hospital setting.

Solvent misuse dangers highlighted
04 Feb 03  |  Northern Ireland

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