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Directors Cut

Ross Bell MOS

Ross Bell
Executive Director

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I have to admit I feel absolute despair every time a young New Zealander dies trying to get high on solvents and gases.

New Zealand has a tragic history of volatile substance abuse (VSA) deaths – 60 in the past decade. It’s one of the most difficult areas of drug harm reduction work.

The people using these products are often very young and simply experimenting, yet they can die with their first high. It’s almost impossible to control supply of the products as most are common and have legitimate household uses. We have few tools up our sleeve to try to prevent or reduce use and harm.

There is no easy answer but, frustratingly, every time there’s a high-profile case, people who should know better go looking for one.

12-year-old Darius Claxton died in a Christchurch car park in May using butane. Jamie Jury (18) and Brendon McLeod (17) remain in hospital with serious burns after an explosion when they were using LPG last month.

Prompted by these cases, the Chief Coroner has announced he’ll conduct an urgent inquiry into ‘huffing’. His won’t be the first.

I have a word of caution for the Chief Coroner: The inquiry itself isn’t a silly idea but, from past experience, all these reviews accomplish is to remind us what a bloody difficult issue VSA is and that intuitions about solutions aren’t always grounded in evidence.

This was starkly illustrated by a 2005 inquiry by the Wellington Coroner who examined six VSA deaths. Ignoring advice received from the Ministries of Health and Youth Development, he recommended a public awareness campaign. Child Youth Mortality Review Committee Chairman Dr Nick Baker recently reminded us the evidence says that’s exactly the last thing we should pursue.

But evidence also shows we shouldn’t wring our hands. Sellers of these products can be shown better ways to manage sales, and we’ve had some successes recently with retailers. Services that work with young people can be better informed.

The media have an important role – they can also get it very wrong. Coverage of recent cases has been clumsy and dangerous, showing specific brands, where to buy them and even how to inhale. Guidelines for reporting on VSA are clearly needed.

The Chief Coroner will undoubtedly look again at ways to control supply and availability, and we should keep an open mind about that. After all, the R18 restriction placed on spray paint as part of an anti-graffiti law has gone some way to reduce illicit use of those products. But considering we’re still left with a supermarket full of alternatives, our attention should switch to renewing efforts on health promotion and harm reduction.

Ross Bell
Executive Director

NB Over 10 years the Drug Foundation has published 500 articles in the Matters of Substance magazine. Half of these stories are available here as webpages, and the rest are in PDF format only (download August 2012 copy 5.9 MB).

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