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UK doctors call for tighter controls on ‘laughing gas’ as rising numbers of young people affected

When 20-year-old *Musa first started taking nitrous oxide – commonly known as “laughing gas” – to combat stress, he did not imagine he would eventually be hospitalised.

“In the middle of the night, I go to the toilet. I got up and just fell on my face. I couldn’t get up,” he said..

Nitrous oxide is a chemical compound widely used in medicine as a form of pain relief, or anaesthetic, and to alleviate anxiety. It is also used by chefs to whip cream.

Although it’s legal to sell nitrous oxide for such legitimate purposes, it can cause dizziness, sound distortion and hallucinations when inhaled.

Since the night he fell at home, Musa has been a patient at University Hospital in Birmingham after experiencing paralysis.

He now fears that he may have been permanently damaged by his use of laughing gas.

“If you want to disable yourself, carry on,” he said.

“You won’t know until it’s too late. It makes you a crackhead. It makes you a bit of a junkie. I didn’t picture myself being like this at 20 years old. I don’t know how I’d live if the outcome is I can’t walk again properly. I don’t know how I’d react to that. Swear to God”.

UK experts are saying they are seeing more young people affected by nitrous oxide and are calling for “tighter controls of groups which are allowed to buy and sell the gas”.

Calls to restrict the sale of nitrous oxide

“Seeing young people with completely avoidable, preventable neurological disability is far from a joke. It’s really upsetting,” said Dr David Nicholl, a Consultant Neurologist at University Hospitals Birmingham.

“I think much tighter action needs to be on the supply chain. This stuff should be sold business to business. It shouldn’t be sold in corner shops,” he added.

In 2016, the UK government introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act which banned selling the gas knowingly for “reckless” purposes or for its psychoactive effect.

However, a recent investigation by British broadcaster Sky News revealed cans of nitrous oxide are being sold at local shops in Birmingham – whether under the counter or at the back of the shop. Customers are often given balloons to inhale the gas from as well.

Musa says this is where he too started buying nitrous oxide.

According to figures released in 2022 from the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS), 1.3 per cent of adults aged 16 to 59 years and 3.9 per cent of adults aged 16 to 24 years had used nitrous oxide.

This is “equivalent to around 444,000 and 230,000 individuals, respectively,” the ONS estimates.

*The name of the interviewee has been changed to protect their identity.

For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.

Video editor • Roselyne Min

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