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Misuse of Nitrous Oxide

Volume 678: debated on Tuesday 21 July 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

We have all seen the tell-tale bullet-shaped silver canisters and their balloon companions littering our beaches and parks this summer. On Saturday morning, I saw yet another little pile of littered canisters at every 10 paces or so along Whitstable beach in my constituency.

I commend my hon. Friend for her powerful campaign on this issue. As a former councillor in Camden, I am aware of the pressures on councils during this pandemic. Is she aware of the significant cost to councils of removing these discarded containers, and will she raise that in her speech?

Yes, I am going to mention that. I know that my council has had so many extra rubbish collections during covid due to people gathering on beaches, which is a significant problem. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that.

Many people pass by these canisters without knowing what they are. Some will have picked them up, examined them and speculated imaginatively about their use. Among young people, the use of nitrous oxide is endemic. Every single sixth-former and university or college student in Britain will know what those silver canisters are. Nitrous oxide—also known as laughing gas, NOS, NOx, whippits, balloons or chargers—is a psychoactive drug covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. It can be taken legally, but it cannot by law be sold or given away to others for the purpose of inhalation in a recreational capacity.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Many of us are aware of this issue, and I thank her for bringing it forward. The media has been full of stories, and so-called laughing gas is not a laughing matter. Does she agree that, while it is necessary in the medical field and must continue to be available in that field, we need to educate our young people about the dangers attached to its use outside the medical field?

It is a massive honour to be intervened on by the hon. Gentleman—I have arrived! A recent report by the British Compressed Gases Association—something I never thought I would say in this Chamber—said that continued medical use will be easy, as it always has been, if we impose a restriction on sales to individuals. I have borne that in mind when doing my research, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that.

The canisters are manufactured as charger bulbs for use in catering, to whip cream, among other things, and we just heard about their medical use. If someone wants to buy cream chargers, there are currently no age restrictions. A quick look online this morning showed me that I could have 24 canisters delivered to my office tomorrow for just £9.19. Teenagers tell me that boxes sell for as little as £5 locally, or I could just walk into one of the 25% of corner shops estimated to sell these chargers. If I bought some canisters for the purpose of indulging in a quick lockdown high, I would not have broken the law. Despite a few websites having small print telling me that the nitrous oxide they were selling was for professional purposes only, no one would have asked me for ID or for the items to be sent to a registered catering, medical or dental premises. That is clearly the problem here—it is far too easy to purchase nitrous oxide for use as a recreational drug, and every day up and down the country, thousands of young people are doing just that.

It is clear to me and to many of the experts I have spoken to that recreational use has become much more prevalent during lockdown. This is not in any way meant as an attack on teenagers or young people. They are not the villains of the piece. The toll on the mental wellbeing of young people forced to be apart from their friends has been really difficult. Let us be honest: every generation has experimented with and will continue to use recreational drugs and alcohol of some kind. This rise in the use of nitrous oxide is partially caused by covid-19-related shortages of other recreational drugs, which has led to a rise in their prices and a decline in their purity. Big cylinders of nitrous oxide have been stolen from hospitals and, since they have reopened, from coffee shops. That is quite unlikely to be the work of a few bored teenagers on the beach. Users, and therefore suppliers, have looked elsewhere, often to nitrous oxide, which, when combined with other quasi-legal highs, can replicate some of the effects of harder illegal substances.

Of course, there was already an uphill trend in the use of nitrous oxide. The 2018-19 national drugs survey suggested that nearly 9% of those aged 16 to 24 had tried the drug, compared with 6% five years earlier, and that for one in 25 users it had caused some kind of accident—staggering into traffic, falling off balconies or drowning in swimming pools, to name but a few. It is now second in use only to cannabis.

From consulting experts from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, including its chief scientist, Professor Gino Martini, it is clear that use of nitrous oxide carries significant health risks. It can cause hallucinations and nausea, deep vein thrombosis and skin hyperpigmentation. Some people have been left with spinal cord damage and paralysis. For young people, the vitamin B12 deficiency that can be caused can also affect brain development and rewiring of the prefrontal cortex.

Even after the initial high and the immediate consequences of that high, nitrous oxide can have long-term effects. Users report lasting numbness on their face, around their mouths and in their hands and feet, caused by often irreversible nerve damage. Ambulance workers have recently expressed concern about the number of call-outs they are attending in recent months linked to the drug.

It is clear that there is currently not enough education and outreach being done to draw people’s attention to the early signs of irreversible nerve damage—tingling in their tongue and fingers, for example. I therefore call on the Government to further support local services in disseminating harm reduction and educational materials on nitrous oxide. The Royal College of Nursing has said that there is a lack of understanding about the health consequences: well, today is the day that the Government can begin to change that. I want this debate to be the start of a national conversation on the use of nitrous oxide and the harms that it can possibly cause.

Driving while on drugs is an offence, obviously, and police forces can test for impairment and prosecute accordingly. Inhaling nitrous oxide and then driving is putting oneself, other road users and pedestrians at great risk.

The hon. Lady is making a really powerful speech. I cannot help noticing that in Wycombe we see piles of these canisters at the roadside. As a motorcyclist, I have often been conscious when looking at little steel rollers, in effect, that they could cause a major fatal accident on a bicycle or a motorcycle, or possibly in a car. I really appreciate the opportunity to put that on the record, because I hope that the Government will think about some of the wider harms that users might cause.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Kent police’s road policing unit has recently made a video highlighting the dangers. That is one of the things that they are really concerned about.

The data on those driving under the influence of nitrous oxide in fatal accidents is unclear, but anecdotally enforcement officers up and down the country will say that it is a big problem. Whitstable residents report to me that night after night young people are driving dangerously around the town. It is becoming a blight on our area and putting a strain on our excellent local police services. Come to Canterbury or Whitstable on a Friday or Saturday night, and you will see the drug being used everywhere.

When the users have gone home, they leave behind the consequences. They do not see the toddlers picking up the shiny thing from the beach the next day to play with. They do not see the dog trying to eat one in a park—including my own daft dog, I am afraid. They do not see the volunteers who put in hours picking up litter that otherwise would be swept out to sea, casually discarded after a few moments of fun.

The point that the hon. Lady is making about items being discarded at the roadside is true of Pollokshields in my constituency as well. The local environmental group has been going out and finding that this is an increasing problem in the community. I thank her very much for raising it, because it is a growing issue and the Government should be alive to the problems that it is causing in our communities.

I thank the hon. Lady. I will be mentioning the environment in a little while.

According to last month’s guest blog in the British Medical Journal written by three eminent voices from the pharmaceutical sector, despite the scarcity of information on the economic and health burden, a number of unsafe practices in nitrous oxide use have been reported, including inhaling it from the nozzle of a whipped cream dispenser, from plastic bags, or directly from a tank. Reported deaths have been caused by sudden cardiac arrhythmias and/or asphyxiation. Between 2010 and 2017, more than 30 people died in England and Wales from nitrous oxide use. The latest figures show an average of five people per year, but data on these deaths is not currently routinely gathered by hospitals. The number of patients presenting to healthcare services with neurological damage due to nitrous oxide consumption is expected to rise. It can cause hypoxia and brain damage, and in some cases can be highly and instantly addictive. Symptoms such as personality changes, emotional disorders, impulsive and aggressive behaviours, hallucinations, illusions and other psychotic symptoms can all be the result of nitrous oxide abuse. Despite the name, it really is no laughing matter.

Let us not forget another really important factor, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss): nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas. It can stay in the atmosphere for up to 150 years, absorbing radiation and trapping heat, so not only is its misuse a blight on our society and a danger to people’s health, but it has an environmental impact too. These canisters will sit in landfills for ever.

It is clear that tighter regulations around the sale of nitrous oxide are now needed. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) has written to Amazon about this recently, and it is a growing concern in his constituency. I agree with the British Compressed Gases Association, which is also calling on the Government to use their consumer protection powers for much tighter regulations on sales, and which says that legitimate users, such as those using it as medical pain-relieving gas, would not be adversely affected by tighter controls. I agree also with Professor Gino Martini and his expert colleagues, who are calling for provision of identification for the purchase of nitrous oxide, raising the age of sales to people over 25 and restricting quantities per purchase.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on a really important matter that has a huge impact on my constituents. Does she agree that it is important to look at the penalty for possession because, as it stands, there is none?

My hon. Friend raises a really good point, but this is particularly about restricting the buying of nitrous oxide and what it is used for, rather than punishing the young people. However, I thank her for raising that.

One retailer of catering supplies last week had an order for 38,000 chargers from one person, and I do not think it was from a coffee shop reopening after lockdown. Quite rightly, he refused this questionable sale. Tighter regulations on sale and better education on the risks rather than overly criminalising the often young users of this drug is, in my opinion, the right way to go. We cannot stand by and simply say, “Let’s leave this. After all, it is less toxic than alcohol, cannabis or ecstasy.” That attitude just is not acceptable, as nitrous oxide has plenty of risks in its own right.

I am calling on the Government to introduce essential tighter restrictions on the sale of nitrous oxide, backing up our hard-working paramedics, nurses, doctors and scientists, who are all calling for more to be done so that this year’s zeitgeist for nitrous oxide does not turn into a national disgrace.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is standing, but this is an Adjournment debate and it is not open to everybody to speak. Hon. Members have to have fulfilled certain conditions to do so. I am not aware of that having happened—therefore, they have not been fulfilled. The hon. Gentleman may intervene on the Minister, if the Minister wishes to take the intervention—hon. Members can make their point but they cannot make a speech in the Adjournment debate.

I thank the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for securing this debate, providing the opportunity for the House to discuss the misuse of nitrous oxide, which, as comments so far have indicated, is a concern across our United Kingdom.

Will the Minister take on board the fact that my constituents share the concerns of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and that of many other Government Members, too? This really needs serious action.

I take that point. As we have heard, the recreational use of this gas is a problem. Many of our constituents are concerned about the impact of the misuse of nitrous oxide, not only on the physical and mental wellbeing of users, but on their communities through associated problems such as antisocial behaviour and the small canisters left littering our streets. The Government are conscious of these concerns and the need to respond to them.

This is a huge and growing problem, and I am hoping that my hon. Friend will consider the need not only to restrict this but to educate people so that parents know what these canisters are, and young people know the risk and the harm that they do to themselves when they consume them.

Absolutely—it is about being clear that laughing gas is no laughing matter, in terms of the impact that it can have on people’s health.

Nitrous oxide is considered a psychoactive substance under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. As has been touched on, it has legitimate uses in medicine, dentistry and even as a propellant for whipped cream canisters, but it is an offence to supply nitrous oxide if someone knows that it will be used for its psychoactive effect, or is reckless in that regard, rather than for a legitimate purpose. Those convicted under the Act may be subject to a maximum sentence of seven years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.

We have the same problem as the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on the beaches. It seems to be the fashion of the day. The Minister said that there are controls on retailers, but I have just looked online and eBay is selling these things—100 for £48.95—despite the guidance from the Government that this should not be on open sale. Something is going wrong with these online retailers, and something needs to be done.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I will come in a minute to some things we are looking at—a package partly around online harms more generally, which include, of course, things being sold online and where people are being reckless as to what may end up being done with them.

In 2016, there were 28 convictions under this legislation in England and Wales, with 152 convictions in 2017, 107 convictions in 2018 and 52 convictions in 2019. These figures include those related to nitrous oxide, but a breakdown by drug substance is not available.

In November 2018, the Government published a review of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which provided detailed insight into the way in which the Act has affected the sale and use of potentially harmful psychoactive substances. The review concluded that, after the 2016 Act came into force, 332 retailers across the United Kingdom were identified as having closed down, including many so-called head shops, or stopped selling new psychoactive substances. Anecdotal evidence from the police shows that open sale of NPSs on our high streets ceased. Meanwhile, action by the National Crime Agency resulted in the removal of psychoactive substances being sold by UK-based websites.

The Government have published guidance for retailers to satisfy themselves that they comply with the law, recommending that retailers, including those operating online, should pay particular attention to the potential for abuse of nitrous oxide, especially where customers seek to buy in bulk or larger volumes, or where, by the nature of the sale, it is clear they are unlikely to be used for legitimate purposes. I would also point out that the sale of nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effects is illegal regardless of the age of the purchaser, although selling to children could well undermine a retailer’s defence that they had taken appropriate steps to prevent its being misused and were effectively being reckless.

Turning to the need for tighter online regulations, the Online Harms White Paper sets out the Government’s plans to make companies more responsible for their users’ safety online, especially for children and other vulnerable groups. The supply of psychoactive substances for their psychoactive effect will fall within the scope of the planned legislation set out in the White Paper. The Government’s initial response to the consultation on the White Paper was published in February, which gave more detail on the policy position and named Ofcom as the Government’s preferred independent online harms regulator. We will publish a full response to the consultation in the coming months and, crucially, aim to bring legislation before Parliament in this Session.

The Government are committed to helping people feel safe in their local area, and are giving police the powers and resources to do this. The police funding settlement for 2020-21 sets out the biggest increase in funding for the policing system in a decade. The Government will provide a total police funding settlement of up to £15.2 billion in 2020-21, which is an increase of up to £1.12 billion compared with 2019-20, including main grant, council tax precept and national priorities. Police and crime commissioners will receive £700 million to recruit up to 6,000 additional officers by the end of March 2021. These will be shared among the 43 territorial police forces in England and Wales. The increase in officer numbers will help the forces in England and Wales tackle crime and keep our communities safe, including by tackling problems associated with nitrous oxide abuse.

Turning to the role of local government, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 introduced powers such as public space protection orders that the police and local councils can use to prevent people from taking intoxicating substances, including psychoactive substances such as nitrous oxide, in specified areas. I know the hon. Member for Canterbury will be working with her local council to ensure these are used, where appropriate, in her constituency, as I saw the coverage in the local press of this debate when she had secured it.

With regard to the littering associated with the misuse of nitrous oxide, often the small canisters left lying in the street, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) mentioned, can be not just unsightly but a danger to road users. Local councils have a statutory duty to keep their land clear of litter and refuse. It is, of course, an offence to drop litter, and councils have legal powers to take enforcement action against offenders. Anyone caught littering may be prosecuted in a magistrates court, which can lead to a criminal record, although instead of prosecuting, councils normally will decide to issue a fixed penalty or on-the-spot fine. We have increased the maximum fixed penalty for littering from £80 to £150 since April 2018, and from April 2019 the minimum fixed penalty was also raised from £50 to £65. We have also given councils in England outside London new civil penalty powers to tackle littering from vehicles.

We recognise that in the current circumstances local authorities may well have more challenges than usual in collecting all kinds of waste, as outlined in the speech by the hon. Member for Canterbury. The Government have therefore announced a multibillion-pound support package for local authorities, in responding to the covid-19 pandemic, to ensure these demands can be met.

The Minister has outlined the legislation, as well as the background to the powers that councils have and that the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 gives us, but very few offences are taken further under that Act, which is disappointing. The frustration the public have is that although we have oodles of legislation, we do not seem to be applying it.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s frustration, and having campaigned for the 2016 Act I know what the situation was before that, when the theory was that a shop would be selling research chemicals, with the idea that a research chemist was going to walk down the street and buy something for their next project. That is why we introduced that Act. We are looking to legislate further on online harms, taking on board some of the points made about where things can be bought online, and tightening those provisions. Similarly, particularly where there are problems in local areas—for example, if people are taking substances on the street—there are powers that can be used. Similar powers can also be applied to those drinking alcohol. That is not a criminal offence in itself, but if it leads to antisocial behaviour and those tests are met, an order can be applied for to prevent that taking place in a particular location.

The Minister is giving a great response, but is not the truth that young people need hope and joy in their lives? We will not be able to fulfil that request tonight, but at some point the Government must start thinking about how to help young people to be happy and not need laughing gas.

I cannot understand why my hon. Friend thinks that a parliamentary Adjournment debate will not fill people with joy and happiness. They always seem to fill the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) with joy, as well as us when we see him in his place. I do agree, however, and that is one reason why we have not looked to criminalise the possession or use of laughing gas, because that is a different position. My hon. Friend is right to say that this cannot just be about law enforcement, and that we need a wider strategy.

One part of our strategy when dealing with drug misuse is education, and we want to do all we can to prevent people from using drugs, and intervene early to prevent an escalation to more harmful use. As my hon. Friend will know, FRANK, the Government’s free national drugs information and advice service, provides information on nitrous oxide, and outlines the harms such as dizziness, vitamin B deficiency and nerve damage that can result from long-term use. We continue to update FRANK to reflect new and emerging patterns of drug use.

We also support investment in evidence-based programmes that have a positive impact on young people and adults, giving them the confidence, resilience and risk management skills to resist drug use. For example, we support Rise Above, which is an online resilience-building resource aimed at 11 to 16-year-olds. It provides resources to help young people develop the skills to make positive choices for their health. Schools play a key role in enabling young people to make positive choices about their wellbeing, including resisting drug use. Relationship, sex and health education will become a compulsory subject in schools from September 2020, with some flexibility to reflect the current challenges related to covid-19 that schools face. That subject uses evidence-based approaches to give children and young people the resilience and critical thinking skills that are needed to support decisions about drug use.

I thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. The Government recognise that tackling the misuse of nitrous oxide requires a multifaceted approach. This is not just about enforcement or tackling retailers; we must ensure that young people—indeed, people of all ages, as the use of this substances is not confined to young people—understand the long-term implications. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) said, we must ensure that people have joy, hope and optimism in their life, and part of tackling the use of drugs is ensuring that people do not feel that they need to turn to them instead. The Government look forward to working productively with Members across the House to develop that strategy, and ensure that our communities are protected from harm.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.