Experts say UK’s ban on laughing gas ‘unlikely to increase health benefits’


Police officers carry canisters of nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas, confiscated from revellers planning to use it as a drug, during the Notting Hill Carnival in west London on August 29, 2022. — AFP/File
Police officers carry canisters of nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas, confiscated from revellers planning to use it as a drug, during the Notting Hill Carnival in west London on August 29, 2022. — AFP/File

Health professionals have warned that a ban on nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas” as it is more often known, could prevent users from seeking medical care in hospitals.

Recently, 15 neurologists and other medical experts have contended in a letter to the government that drug possession should not be a crime.

According to the BBC, the experts also warned that, although there is an increase in the number of hospital patients experiencing the effects of “laughing gas,” a ban may further stigmatise users.

In response, the government declared that it would nonetheless enforce the ban.

Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas that is commonly used by 16 to 24-year-olds, causing nerve-related symptoms like being unable to walk, falling over, tingling, and loss of sensation in feet and hands.

Occasionally, some users also experience bladder or bowel problems, erectile dysfunction, or incontinence.

With an increase in its use over the past few years, the UK government has proposed an amendment to the law, making it illegal to possess nitrous oxide for recreational use, but not its supply.

In the letter to the Minister for Policing Chris Philp, 15 medical professionals have argued that making possession of nitrous oxide illegal is unlikely to lead to health benefits for patients, despite an increase in nitrous oxide patients reported by leading medics.

The author of the letter, Dr Alastair Noyce, Professor of Neurology and Neuroepidemiology, said that the ban risked creating “fear of a criminal record” among young users.

“People may delay coming to hospital at a time when their symptoms are treatable,” he said. “The net effect of that may be that they develop long-term harm damages.”

He said that there was “very little evidence that the criminalisation will lead to reductions in neurological harm and will impact people’s opportunities who are not in education and employment”.

Additionally, the letter urged the government to fund a national education campaign in schools and through the media “to ensure the public understand the risks posed by nitrous oxide misuse”.

According to the proposals the government is considering a ban on laughing gas, which could result in up to two years in prison or an unlimited fine.

Experts argue that a blanket ban is disproportionate and would likely cause more harm than good, and consultations with experts and the public are underway to develop the plan.

However, Mohammad Ashfaq, who runs Kick It, a grassroots organisation in Birmingham, says that the proposed ban would help stop misuse of the drug.

“At the moment, it is very difficult for the police to completely eradicate,” he said. “Communities are getting frustrated. The law will make a difference. It would be a lot clearer.”

Meanwhile, Katherine Bramwell, from South Wirral, said she didn’t know anything about nitrous oxide until her son got addicted. She says he found it hard to get off the substance due to the psychological dependence.

“When you’re the one going to pick your son off from somewhere and finding him just basically lay there — can’t walk, can’t speak. You know, you’re waiting for a call to tell you that your son is dead.”

On the contrary, the government has stated that it would proceed with the nitrous oxide ban and that it had set out a “clear strategy” in its anti-social behaviour action plan “for the police to deal with the misuse of this substance”.


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