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Laughing Gas: Assessing the Risks of the Party Drug

Governments want to regulate nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, a party drug used by young adults in the US and Europe.

Governments want to regulate nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, a party drug used by young adults in the United States and Europe. Here's what you need to know.

I was 17-years-old the first (and only) time I used laughing gas — nitrous oxide — for fun. I was with some friends who showed me it was sold at the grocery store.

As an anxious teenager, I was wary, but the fact it was available for legal purchase at the supermarket helped assuage my concerns. If it was really that harmful, I thought, surely it wouldn't be available for anyone to buy. say this is a common introduction to the party drug. Kids are told, often by peers, that laughing gas won't harm them. They may believe it because there are no warnings plastered across whipped cream canisters in stores. You don't have to find a dealer, or even be 21, to get hold of the substance.

Many teenagers don't realise laughing gas is dangerous

In 2018, a report published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry reported that 92% of teenagers in the UK who had heard of laughing gas “were not aware of any side effects” associated with its use.

Now, governments are moving to regulate the substance. The UK passed a law in 2023 banning nitrous oxide. It is classified as a drug in the Netherlands. And as recently as May 2024, Louisiana became the first US state to sign a law prohibiting laughing gas from being sold in retail. German regulators are also considering a ban.

But why? What makes nitrous oxide dangerous? Here's what you should know about laughing gas and how it can affect your .

What is laughing gas and why is it widely available?

Laughing gas is the colloquial term for nitrous oxide, a clear gas.

It is used in medicine to relax patients when they are having wisdom teeth removed, for instance, or during childbirth.

Nitrous oxide can cause a euphoric feeling that users describe as a “head rush.” You may feel light-headed, dizzy or disoriented.

When used recreationally, the effect of the gas is short-lived, lasting 30 seconds to a minute. Users may inhale it multiple times in a single session.

Along with its use in medical settings, nitrous oxide is used to make whipped cream, hence its availability at your local grocery store.

The canisters are reportedly also sold at kiosks and corner shops across Europe and in vape shops in the US.

Health experts say they have seen a boom in the number of vendors selling nitrous oxide since 2017. That's according to Devan Mair of a student campaign at Queen Mary University of London called N2O: Know the Risks.

N₂O is the chemical formula for nitrous oxide — a compound of two nitrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

Can nitrous oxide be addictive?

Although health experts say most laughing gas users take the substance infrequently, some has indicated a subset of individuals who appear to get hooked. But the evidence is thin.

Researchers set out to determine whether nitrous oxide could be addictive in an evaluation of the evidence, a so-called meta study published in the journal Addiction in October 2023.

They found that, although the research is sparse, what has been published indicates “consistent evidence for the presence of at least four substance abuse disorder criteria in heavy N2O [nitrous oxide] users.”

The authors concluded that nitrous oxide “could well be addictive.” They advised that it should be handled as a “potentially addictive substance” until more assessments are conducted.

How common is laughing gas usage?

Recreational use of nitrous oxide varies from country to country.

The UK, for example, has reported some of the highest levels of its illicit use: A British government report in 2020 warned that nitrous oxide was second on the list of the most commonly used recreational drugs among people aged 16 to 24 years.

In other European countries and in the US, people also use the substance to get high, with numbers of these users reportedly growing.

A study of nitrous oxide use in China in 2018 indicated that teens picked up the habit from peers who studied abroad. Nitrous oxide is banned for recreational sale in Australia and Japan.

Research on the drug's ubiquity in places like , the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa is largely non-existent.

The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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