Concern over 'huffing' death toll
More than 60 people - including 55 youths - have died as a result of "huffing" in the last 12 years, and the chief coroner says there is no easy way to stop it.
Judge Neil MacLean today released a report on the recreational inhalation of butane, which has taken the life of 63 people between 2000 and 2012, of which 24 were under the age of 17.
The coroner found the number of deaths related to huffing was highest among 14-year-old boys, with six deaths, and 19-year-old men with eight.
Maori and males were over-represented with 30 and 49 deaths respectively.
MacLean said huffing was an "extraordinary hard problem" and there was a clear need for a multi-agency approach to address it.
"One of the real problems about this particular area of abuse, related harm and death is that most of the common ingredients are everyday households products and simply banning them or making them illegal are unrealistic," he said.
"However, many of the substances that are being abused have been found, by coroners and other researchers, to be too regularly available from local shops."
"We tend to look at the Government to help, at least coordinate, a multi-agency response. I think there is a lot of people out there anxious to do something, and they may need legislative backing."
The coroner called for the urgent review into huffing after two Dunedin teenagers suffered serious burns when the two LPG bottles they were allegedly sniffing exploded in July.
Nearly two months later, 17-year-old Poihaere Eru died from huffing in Christchurch. Her death was the second this year after 12-year-old Darius Logan Claxton died in New Brighton carpark in May.
Darius was the youngest huffing-related death in the last 12 years, the oldest was a 76-year-old man and the second oldest was a 32-year-old.
MacLean said deaths from inhalant abuse were "very random", with people dying after the first use, 50th or 100th.
"There is no way of guaranteeing its safe use. Moreover the risk of sudden death doesn't vanish immediately - it can persist over several hours."
He said there wasn't a common theme among the deaths, but alienation and lack of self-esteem could be seen among some cases.
"They are not getting on well with their parents, or their parents don't understand them."
MacLean said it was primarily related to people from low socio-economic background, but not always.
He said despite people using a number of different products, National Poisons Centre data showed the most commonly used product in New Zealand contained butane or propane.
Coroners have made several recommendations over the years, which MacLean summarised in the report, including regulation, a national education campaign, research and support of vulnerable young people.
MacLean refused to focus on one recommendation, saying it was up to agencies and the government to look at what would work best.
"What we are saying is this is what we are picking up, this is our analysis of what is being said, but we don't have the answers," he said.
He said the Government should have a look at what is being done in other countries and have a discussion with the Drug Foundation and the Mortality Review Committee.
In the United Kingdom, it is an offence to supply any cigarette lighter refill canister containing butane to anyone under 18.
In some states of Australia, including Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland, it is illegal to knowingly supply an inhalant to a person for the purpose of intentional inhalation.
A number of voluntary approaches to sales restrictions on volatile substances had also been undertaken across some of Australian states.
The New Zealand Drug Foundation also created a guide for retailers on managing the sale of volatile substances in 2008, but it didn't stick.
Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell today said the coroner's report was a "stark wake-up call".
"Sitting on our hands should no longer be the primary response to this problem," he said.
"Sadly, previous coroners' recommendations have been ignored and even some government agencies have passed the buck. That cannot be allowed to continue.
Bell said attempts to restrict the supply of volatile substances were almost impossible, but it didn't mean the issue should be ignored.
"Rather, we need an increased political response."
He said one of the most effective ways to address abuse harm in vulnerable communities was to increase the role schools play.
Bell said the Drug Foundation had launched a website - volatilesubstances.org.nz.org.nz - to raise awareness and provide support.
Coroners' recommendations over the years included:
- The government take a fresh look at supply reduction strategies and the policing of volatile substance abuse
- The government launch a national public education campaign to prevent the use of illicit drugs by children and youths and educate them of the dangers involved.
- Training be provided to teachers, schools, counsellors, and health-care workers in all forms of substance abuse and recognition, treatment and management of drug problems
- The government develop a national, community-based programme for parents, caregivers and young people designed to improve knowledge of all aspects of normal childhood and adolescent development
- Steps be taken to regulate the sale of products such as butane gas and other substance abuse materials, such as containing the product behind a closed counter.
- Introducing health warnings to inhalant products that do not have them.
Those in crisis or concerned about someone who may be in crisis can call these confidential helplines:
Poisons Advice 0800 POISON
- © Fairfax NZ News