Inhalant abuse is now a multi-generational problem. “Huffing,” or intentionally inhaling a chemical vapor to get “high,” has been thought to be a serious, life-threatening risk primarily among children and adolescents, but a new government study shows that 54 percent of treatment admissions related to inhalants abuse in 2008 involved adults ages 18 or older.
The study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also shows that 52 percent of these adult admissions involved people aged 18 to 29, 32 percent involved people aged 30 to 44, and 16 percent involved people aged 45 or older.
The announcement of the findings was made by SAMHSA in collaboration with the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC). The SAMHSA study was based on data collected from treatment facilities across the country.
Inhalants can produce mind-altering effects. Chronic use of inhalants can cause irreversible damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs as well as death.
The magnitude of the inhalant problem among adults is also highlighted in the latest figures from SAMHSA's National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which shows that an estimated 1.1 million adults over age 18 used inhalants in the past year. By contrast, estimated adult past year use levels for the following other substances are lower:
- Crack: 988,000
- LSD: 637,000
- Heroin: 571,000
- PCP: 75,000
“Inhalant abuse is an equal opportunity killer that does not discriminate on the basis of age, background or gender,” said H. Westley Clark, M.D., J.D., M.P.H., director of SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. “Although we have been understandably focused for many years on the danger huffing poses to our kids, these new data highlight the need for everyone to be aware of and effectively address the serious risks it poses to adults and all segments of our society.”
“Just because a product is legal doesn't mean it is safe,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). “Our homes are increasingly becoming the source of dangerous drugs of abuse for young people. Whether these products are inhalants found under our sinks and in our utility rooms, or dangerous prescription drugs stored our medicine cabinets, parents need to act today to protect our young people by securing these products and discussing the harms that they cause.”
Erin Davis, a 42-year-old mother of a 16-year-old daughter explained: “I am an adult, not a teenager, and know firsthand how these inhalants can destroy your life.” She explained that she inhaled computer duster for two years, starting at age 38.
“I actually passed out driving one time when I was using and came to a stop in the middle of the road,” Davis says. She admits that without the legal system ordering her to treatment, she would still be using inhalants and endangering herself and others. “As much as I don't like dealing with probation and all the money I have to pay out, getting caught probably saved my life. I know I wouldn't have stopped. I couldn't.”
“Traditionally, our focus has been on prevention with children while attempting to locate assistance for those needing help, treatment and support,” said Harvey Weiss, executive director of the NIPC. “The frequency of emails and calls on our toll-free hotline from people needing help for spouses, older siblings and friends, parents, and even grandparents, has led us to understand that people of all ages are at risk and may need help with this problem.”
“Most inhalants produce a rapid high that resembles alcohol intoxication,” said Dr. David Shurtleff, acting deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health. “Given the wide availability of these substances and the severe health consequences they can produce, inhalant abuse is a serious problem. Just a single session of repeated inhalations can cause permanent organ damage or death.”
The SAMHSA Spotlight Study shows that most of the admissions involving inhalants were male (72 percent), more than one third had less than a high school education (38 percent), and almost three quarters were non-Hispanic white (72 percent).
The press conference came at the start of the 19th annual National Inhalants & Poisons Awareness Week, which is being held from March 20-26.
The SAMHSA Spotlight Study, Adults Represent Majority of Inhalant Treatment Admissions, is based on data from SAMHSA's Treatment Episode Data Set, a reporting system involving treatment facilities from across the country.
The study was developed as part of the agency's strategic initiative on data, outcomes, and quality—an effort to inform policy makers and service providers on the nature and scope of behavioral health issues.