'Legal' Lighter Fluid Highs Claim Lives: More Young Women Dying Of Inhalant Abuse In UK

More Young Women Chasing 'Legal High' Of Lighter Fluid In UK
At least 40 people in the United Kingdom die every year from inhaling lighter fluid to get high; more of them are young women, increasingly. Creative Commons

More young women in the United Kingdom are dying from inhalant drug abuse, chasing a "legal high" that is quick and dirty.

Candy-Marie Ward, 29, died of cardiac arrest induced by inhalation of a volatile substance: butane, a common lighter fluid. For several years, the young mother of a teenage son had used the substance to get high, even buying butane from local shops on credit, her mother Sharon Stevens, told reporters.

The abuse of "volatile substances" such as gases, glues, and aerosols has remained fairly steady since the late 1980s in the United Kingdom, killing some 40 people every year. However, the trend has shifted away from teenage boys in recent years as more young women try inhalants and become addicted.

The non-profit group Re-Solv, whose mission is to spread awareness of volatile substance abuse, released a research report this month detailing mortalities from volatile substance abuse from 1983 to 2007. Among key findings, 82 percent of women abusing such inhalants were single, divorced, or widowed. And among married people who died from inhalant abuse, a higher proportion were women, at 27 percent versus 16 percent for men.

"It would appear that [volatile substance abuse] deaths are still far more common in males than females, that currently gas fuels are associated with the majority of deaths, that the age of death is on the increase but that the total number of deaths associated with volatile substance abuse have declined since 1992," the report authors wrote.

"Nevertheless there are some routinely collected data that have not thus far been fully exploited within our reports including time of death, day of death, whether 'sniffing' alone or with others ..and marital status."

Although the increase in inhalant abuse among young women may be slowing, experts said data from the past 25 years shows a rising age level for such drug abuse.

"We need to keep a very close eye on this problem, but we cannot do this if we cannot monitor fluctuations in yearly figures," said Stephen Ream, director of Re-Solv. "New types of volatile substance could suddenly appear, for example, and without proper monitoring we would miss the impact they were having on young people — until it was far too late."

John Ramsey, an analytical toxicologist at St. George's University in London, has been monitoring addition to volatile substances since the 1980s, when deaths peaked among a different demographic.

"In the early 1990s, we showed deaths involving mostly youngsters had reached a peak of more than 150 a year," he said.

A subsequent decrease in deaths from volatile substance abuse since then may be attributable to a campaign from the Department of Health, which placed public service advertisements in women's magazines and distributed pamphlets in doctor's offices. Mortalities from inhalant abuse fell to approximately 50 or so per year, a rate that has remained stagnant since then.

Public health advocates in the U.K. are urging lawmakers to restrict sales of butane in supermarkets and shops.

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