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New Generation of Teens Abusing Inhalants

April 24, 2006

Inhalant Abuse: New Generation of Teens Engaging in Dangerous Behavior; Declining Perception of Risk is Major Warning Sign

New York, NY – The Partnership for a Drug-Free America® reports that an alarming number of teenagers are "sniffing" or "huffing" a variety of household products such as spray paint, glue, computer duster, cooking spray and correction fluid to get high.

The 2005 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS) surveyed more than 7,200 teenagers and 1,200 parents (margin of error: +/- 1.5 percent). Top-line findings on inhalants from this year's nationally projectable tracking study¹ show:

  • One in five teenagers (20 percent), or 4.7 million teenagers nationally, report abusing inhalants in their lifetime. 
  • 64 percent of teenagers in 2005 agree strongly that inhalants can kill you, down 19 percent from 2001.
  • 77 percent of teenagers in 2005 agree strongly that inhalants can cause brain damage, down nine percent from 2001.

"What stands out is the teens' decreasing perception of risk because that often correlates with increases in use," said Steve Pasierb, president & CEO of the Partnership. "We clearly need to address underlying attitudes and help teens understand the dangers associated with this form of substance abuse."

Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of vapors to get high can directly induce heart failure and death within minutes of a session of repeated inhalations.

This syndrome, known as "sudden sniffing death," can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person. "Sudden sniffing death" is particularly associated with the abuse of butane, propane, gasoline, and gases and vapors found in common household products.

The substances found in household products can produce a variety of additional effects during or shortly after use. These effects are related to inhalant intoxication and may include belligerence, apathy, impaired judgment, and impaired functioning in work or social situations. Dizziness, drowsiness, slurred speech, lethargy, depressed reflexes, general muscle weakness, and stupor are other possible effects.²

The 2005 PATS survey of parents³ also contains statistics that are cause for concern:

  • Only five percent of parents believe their child has ever abused inhalants.  Parents are not aware or are in denial about the prevalence of inhalant abuse among teens. Teens are four times more likely to report inhalant abuse than parents think.
  • 14 percent fewer parents believe their teens see great risk in abusing inhalants (70 percent in 2005 versus 84 percent in 2003). Parents are not discussing the risk of inhalant abuse with their teens as frequently as they discuss other substances, like cigarettes, alcohol, or marijuana. While 75 percent report discussing the risks of cigarettes "a lot" with their teen, only 50 percent report spending the same amount of time discussing the risks of inhalant abuse "a lot" with their teen.

The Partnership and the Alliance for Consumer Education (ACE) have launched a multi-faceted communications campaign aimed at reducing inhalant abuse among teens.

"With the increased incidence of our children experimenting with inhalants to the tune of one-in-five abusing a product, we must take a proactive approach to reducing this threat," says Joseph Healy, President of ACE. "Parents need to know and talk to their children about the dangerous consequences associated with this risky behavior. Concern over these findings brought ACE and the Partnership together to help reach parents."

In 1995, the Partnership took steps to combat this behavior. According to the Partnership's research (and confirmed by the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future Study), between the 1995 peak in inhalant abuse and 2001, teen perceptions of risk in inhalant abuse increased significantly (from 64 percent in 1995 to 79 percent in 2001). Correspondingly, teen inhalant abuse declined significantly (from 23 percent lifetime trial in 1995 to 18 percent in 2001).

"Some call what we're seeing 'generational forgetting,'" Pasierb says. "Today's middle school kids weren't exposed to the public-education campaigns and community efforts of the 1990's. This is a new generation of kids that needs our help."

The current effort includes both a mass media campaign, including new television and radio public service announcements, and ACE's ongoing outreach across the U.S. to school counselors and nurses with educational materials about inhalant abuse. 

The new television public service announcement entitled "Silence" can be viewed online at www.drugfree.org/inhalants and at www.inhalant.org/download.html. The campaign also includes the involvement of ACE's Parent Resource Network, featuring families who are speaking out after losing a child to inhalant abuse. 

One such parent is Kim Manlove who, along with his wife, Marissa, lost their 16-year-old son, David, to inhalant abuse in 2001. "Since David's death, our family has come to understand that while kids are using inhalants for the drug-like effects they produce, they are, in fact, not drugs but poisons that were never intended to be introduced into the body," said Manlove. "Like other toxins, when abused, they can cause permanent damage and, as our family knows all too well, even death."  

"Our hope is that by sharing our story and David's struggles with substance and inhalant abuse, we can help other families open their eyes to the possibility that their kids might be engaging in very risky behaviors, that inhalant abuse is very real and very dangerous," Manlove explains. 

Visit the Partnership and ACE's web sites for more information on inhalant abuse and tips for parents.

[1] Conducted by Roper Public Affairs and Media for the Partnership. Survey of adolescents in grades 7 through 12. Total sample: 7,216 teenagers nationwide. Margin of error: +/- 1.5 percent.
[2] National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). 
[3] Conducted by Roper Public Affairs and Media for the Partnership. Survey of parents with children 18 and younger. Total sample: 1,200 nationwide. Margin of error: +/-2.8 percent.

Join Together publishes selected press releases on recently published research related to alcohol and drug policy, prevention, and treatment. The views expressed are those of the organization issuing the release.