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Laughing Gas… A Growing Concern

Written by: Alan Baker 24th November, 2022

Among young people, nitrous oxide has become one of the most abused substances in England and Wales.

The 2019/20 Crime Survey for England and Wales indicated that 2.4 % of adults aged 16 to 59 years and 8.7 % of 16- to 24-year-olds reported using nitrous oxide. This is equivalent to around 796 000 and 549 000 individuals respectively.

This makes nitrous oxide the second most prevalent drug among young adults aged 16 to 24 years (after cannabis) and the third most prevalent for adults aged 16 to 59 years (after cannabis and powdered cocaine).

The Global Drug Survey (GDS) is an alternative source of data on prevalence of nitrous oxide uses a non-probability method and has a self- selected sample, consisting of people who are more likely than average to be male, young and to use drugs.

For nitrous oxide, UK respondents in the GDS reported last-year prevalence of 27.2 %, 20.5 % and 24.7 % in the years 2011/2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively. The lifetime prevalence reported by UK respondents in the GDS was 49.6%, 38.6%, 38%, 38% and 31% for the years 2011/2012, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017, respectively.


Based on GDS data for the UK, among last-year users…

The most common method of inhalation:

  • Balloon (94.2 %)
  • Whipped cream dispensers (4.8 %)

The most common source of nitrous oxide for last-year users:

  • Friends (60.2 %)
  • Internet (50.7 %)
  • Festivals (48.3 %)
  • Dealers (14.1 %)
  • Head shops (12.1 %)
  • Supermarkets (6 %).

The most common place of use:

  • House parties (82.5 %)
  • festivals (73.7 %)
  • At home (49.7 %)
  • At clubs (42.5 %)
  • At work (2.2 %)


The risks?

Even though “laughing gas” is viewed as relatively harmless, regular and heavy use is linked to a long list of health harms, some of which are very serious.

Several risks stem from how it is used, such as lung injuries from the high pressure caused by large cylinders. This could result in hypoxia, a condition where tissues receive less oxygen, or frostbite when the skin is exposed to the extremely cold gas from a tank.

It has also been reported that nitrous oxide can inactivate vitamin B12 in the body. B12 is an essential vitamin for healthy nerve functioning.

According to the Office for National Statistics, between 2001 and 2020, there were 56 registered deaths involving nitrous oxide in England and Wales, 45 of these having been registered since 2010 (Office for National Statistics, 2022).

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