Kids See Inhalants As Less Risky

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American teens view sniffing inhalants as less dangerous than they did five years ago, suggesting a greater willingness to try "huffing," concludes a national survey released Monday.

Seventy-seven percent of middle school and high school students in the survey agreed that inhalants can cause brain damage, a 9% drop from 2001. About two-thirds agreed that inhalants can kill, though the figure was down nearly 20% from five years ago, concluded a tracking survey published by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

One-fifth of the 7,216 seventh- through 12th-grade students polled acknowledged trying inhalants at least once in their lifetime, suggesting an upsurge in use during the last two to three years.

But advocates said they were most troubled by a finding that just 5% of parents believed their children had tried inhalants.

"You've got a huge disconnect. 'It's not my kid; it's those other bad kids on the other side of town,'" Steve Pasierb, the group's president, tells WebMD.

Pasierb says the partnership, known for a host of anti-drug television campaigns including ads featuring a fried egg representing "your brain on drugs," is preparing to launch a new television and Internet campaign aimed at kids and parents. The effort is an attempt to re-create a strong "risk perception" prevalent after similar campaigns in the 1990s.

"This time we're going after parents because parents do not get it," Pasierb says. "The goal is to get those use numbers down, not to create awareness of the problem."

Lloyd Johnston, Ph.D., a researcher who conducts the federal government's annual Monitoring the Future Survey on teen drug abuse trends, says he saw little surprising information in the figures. That survey has shown a steady decline since 2001 in teens' perception of risk from inhalants.

Johnston uses the term "generational forgetting" to describe how today's teens perceive less risk from drugs and cigarettes than did their predecessors of just a few years ago when media campaigns were more visible.

Naive Generation

"We have a more naive group of young kids entering adolescence, and they need to hear again what the dangers are," Johnston, a professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, tells WebMD.

Hundreds of legal household products including paints, cleaners, solvents, and even correctional fluid are toxic if inhaled. Huffing has been shown to put children at risk for organ damage (brain, kidney, heart, lungs, and liver) and, in some cases, sudden death.

Dwight Heath, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of anthropology at Brown University, has been a critic of both drug control efforts and Pasierb's group for what he calls "fearmongering" about the true risks of drug use. In writings and interviews, he has accused policymakers and advocates of exaggerating the dangers of drugs for political gain while ignoring potential benefits.

Heath argues that injuries from single-time inhalant use are "exceedingly rare." Still, he tells WebMD that aggressive campaigns to minimize abuse were appropriate since household products carry serious risks and no benefit when inhaled.

"If there are tragedies with drug use, they are certainly present with inhalants," Heath notes. "I have nothing good to say about inhalants."

SOURCES: Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS, April 24, 2006). Steve Pasierb, president, Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Lloyd Johnston, PhD, research professor, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. Monitoring the Future Survey, 2005. Dwight Heath, professor emeritus, Brown University.

By Todd Zwillich
Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D.
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