Solvent abuse kills eight times as many people as ecstasy, yet gets a fraction of the attention. Is glue sniffing being ignored and what can be done?
By Daniel Mann
BBC News Online
Using the words "drugs" and "children" in the same sentence is guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of many people.
Tales of ecstasy deaths and heroin and cocaine abuse regularly make the headlines, and the downgrading of cannabis has fuelled the debate on the availability of drugs.
But many people have all but forgotten another danger that was discussed at length in the 1970s and 1980s, but never went away when attention switched elsewhere.
Solvents and what drugs' workers call volatile substances - things like glue, aerosols and lighter fuel - have killed 2,000 people in the last 30 years.
The charity Re-Solv, which launches a campaign on Thursday to highlight the dangers, says the substances are particularly popular among children, with nine out of 10 users aged 14 to 17.
Re-Solv's director Warren Hawksley says part of the difficulty in raising awareness has been poor press coverage.
"In the last 10 years we've had eight times as many solvent abuse deaths as ecstasy deaths, but ecstasy deaths all have publicity," he says.
After a peak of 152 volatile substance abuse deaths in 1990, campaigning led to a steady fall in numbers - to about 75 a year.
Lighter fuel can be fatal when inhaled
Gas fuels are involved in the majority of deaths, with boys in north-east England, Northern Ireland and Scotland most at risk.
James Kerr, 17, from St Andrews, started inhaling deodorant with friends - sometimes at home, but also at school.
Within weeks he was using four to five cans a week.
He says: "I would do it in short squirts every few hours. It gave you a stronger head rush than smoking a cigarette."
Jay Vanderson died when he was 16 after inhaling cigarette lighter fuel
He says he was completely unaware of the dangers and only sought help after being caught by his father.
Diana and Roger Vanderson from Standon in Hertfordshire are among the many parents who have seen just what solvent and volatile substance abuse can do.
In February 1999 their son Jay died at the age of 16, after inhaling butane - more commonly known as cigarette lighter fuel - in a public toilet.
Diana says: "We didn't know quite what was happening. We were as ignorant of what was going on as he was of the consequences. These substances can kill you in an instant."
Mark Gordon, who was heavily addicted to sniffing glue for four years is now a community development worker in Bangor, Northern Ireland.
He says: "I've taken funerals of youngsters who've died from abuse. In one case I was with the friend of someone who died.
"At the funeral I told him he could be next but he said it wouldn't happen to him. His was the next funeral I took."
He adds: "Speaking as a former abuser, glue without doubt is the best hit of your life. I ended up in mental hospitals and prison as a result and it left me absolutely terrified, hopeless, alone and close to death."
Drugs charity Addaction says such stories are typical of many people involved in what it regards as a "hidden" form of substance misuse.
"It's a very, very easy form of abuse to keep secret because misusing solvents is not illegal and you have to be pretty clued up to know people are abusing," a spokesman said.
Most of the solvent abusers it helps are men in their 40s, who have been addicted for more than 20 years.
Vapour Viv and Sticky Steve, from the new anti-sniffing campaign
Few children or young people come forward for help, partly because solvents are regarded as a "dirty" substance to misuse and as a result the scale of the problem is difficult to assess.
"In contrast ecstasy is a cultural phenomenon - it's seen as something to do with youth culture, so the threat seems more prevalent because it's connected to pop stars and clubs and so on," Addaction says.
"It's the kind of thing people are almost happy to admit to."
Re-Solv sees the need to communicate the dangers of solvent abuse to both children and their parents as so great that it is pushing its campaign through every secondary school in the UK.
They will receive seven cartoon cards, each with characters by the makers of Wallace and Gromit explaining how "sniffing" has changed their lives for the worse.
It says many young people are more worried about deformities resulting from abuse than dying instantly.
It also points out that while crime does not fund solvent and volatile substance abuse there are a lot of crimes that happen as a result.
These have included rape, arson and murder. In one case in Oldbury in the West Midlands, an abuser who was sniffing one-and-a-half pints of glue a day murdered an 80-year-old Catholic priest who was trying to help him with his addiction.
And while solvent abuse is not replacing other, better known drugs, Resolve warns: "Quite often solvent and volatile substance abuse is the first stepping stone to hard drug abuse."