Although some authorities consider inhalants to be depressants, and inhalants have hallucinogenic qualities, for several reasons this book lists inhalants as a substance type in their own right. First, despite easy availability, inhalants are among the most dangerous of abused substances. There is no range of inhalants, some of which are benign and some of which are risky, as there is with stimulants or depressants. All inhalants are dangerous despite wide variations in their chemistry, and this sets them apart from other types of drugs. Second, inhalants are generally used by inhaling them in their gaseous state (which is not the same as smoking and also differs from eating a solid or drinking a liquid). That dosage format sets them apart from other drugs. Third, inhalants are used mainly by younger persons (typically teenage males), a usage pattern that also sets inhalants apart from other drugs.
With some inhalants the amount needed to produce a recreational effect is close to a fatal dose, and deadly outcomes demonstrate that the difference was too close for some deceased users to handle. In addition, strenuous exercise seems related to inhalant death, troublesome for users at dance clubs. The products are often flammable, sometimes producing serious physical injury unrelated to pharmacology. Some users act as if they do not realize they need a continual supply of oxygen, and they administer inhalants in ways that cause suffocation. In addition to all these acute dangers, long-term use of many inhalants can produce nerve damage, impairing the ability to use arms and legs and hands and feet, damage verified scientifically. Another type of long-term damage appears to be assorted types of psychoses. This consequence is harder to verify because inhalant users often take other potent drugs, so proving which mind-altering drug affected the mind can be very difficult. Unquestionably, however, inhalant users can develop states of mind interfering with—or even preventing—their ability to function in society.
Admittedly, some users avoid serious outcomes, just as some car drivers run red lights
without harm. Escape, however, does not mean that danger should be disregarded.
Generally, adult drug users shun most inhalants except as a choice of desperation if nothing else is available. Inhalant users tend to be teenagers or younger, perhaps because other drugs of abuse (even alcohol and tobacco) are harder for some young persons to obtain. Sniffing is often a social event with acquaintances rather than a solitary pastime. As the 1960s began, the average age among 130 glue sniffers in Denver was 13. In this group 124 were male; most were lower-class Hispanics in trouble with school or law enforcement authorities; many had emotional problems. Another study found glue sniffers to have personalities matching those of alcoholics.
Gasoline sniffers are often emotionally deprived teens from troubled families, typically living lower-class lives in rural areas, often members of native populations whose cultures have
been devastated (American Indians in the United States, aborigines in Australia, Island peoples in the Pacific). Case studies of butane sniffers tell of lonely persons with difficulties at school or at home. A psychological test of 59 inhalant abusers found them to be impulsive persons with little respect for authority. Most research finds inhalant users to be unhappy persons marginalized by society. Yet not all researchers find that inhalant users are social misfits from dysfunctional families; some appear to be ordinary persons, though still youthful.
That difference in findings—most researchers saying inhalant abusers are social misfits, with some researchers contending inhalant abusers are normal— deserves an attempt at explanation. Many inhalant researchers work where inhalant abuse has been publicized as a major community problem, and those places tend to have populations of socially marginalized people.
Researchers commonly study persons receiving medical attention for inhalant abuse, and sometimes the medical attention is received involuntarily by court order. Such persons may be no more typical of inhalant users than hospitalized alcoholics receiving court-ordered treatment are typical of most alcohol users. And the definition of “user” may influence understanding. A user who sniffs several times a day is not the same kind of user who sniffed with some friends once or twice over a period of several years. Although most research finds inhalant abusers to be troubled outcasts, it is possible that such typical findings are due to the demographics of the population being studied.
For information about specific inhalants, see alphabetical listings for: butane,
ether, freon, gasoline, mothballs, nitrite, nitrous oxide, TCE, and toluene