In Depth

Nitrous oxide: why Amazon and eBay are under pressure to ban sales

Online retailers selling drug paraphernalia

Leading online retailers are selling nitrous oxide together with the equipment needed to get high on the so-called laughing gas, an investigation has found. 

Research by the BBC shows that sites including Amazon and eBay are supplying the gas, also known as “nos”, alongside the canisters and balloons used to inhale it.

Nitrous oxide is the second most commonly used recreational drug in England and Wales, behind cannabis. But while use of the party drug is soaring among young people, cracking down on sales is “tricky to police as it has legal uses in catering and pain relief”, says the broadcaster. 

What is ‘nos’?

Nitrous oxide blocks signals to the conscious mind from other parts of the brain, giving users a brief feeling of intense euphoria and relaxation.

Inhaling the gas has become a craze at festivals and concerts, where it could be bought in balloons for £2 or less.

According to Home Office statistics, an estimated 763,000 people aged between 16 and 59 have used nos over the past year.

The gas is also used for pain relief during dental work and childbirth, and in some aerosol cans as a whipping agent.

Is it legal?

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, it is illegal to supply nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effect.

However, a number of court cases have collapsed owing to a loophole that provides an exemption for the drug’s medicinal use. The government has said that each case must be decided according to the individual circumstances.

Responding to the BBC investigation findings, Amazon has announced that combined packages of nos canisters and balloons are being removed from the site, while eBay has “removed the items and [is] taking enforcement action against the sellers”.

Is it dangerous?

Short-term side effects can include headaches, dizziness and unconsciousness, while long-term, excessive use has been associated with anaemia, incontinence, depleted bone marrow and numbness in fingers and toes.

The recreational use of nitrous oxide can be fatal, but deaths seldom happen in isolation. In a number of fatal cases, the person has put a bag or gas mask over their head to inhale it, or opened a tank in a sealed space, such as a car.

A total of 25 nos-related deaths were recorded between 2010 and 2016. Catherine Gamble, of the Royal College of Nurses, told The Guardian: “Despite the increasing use of nitrous oxide, particularly amongst younger people, far too few people know about the risks. It might give a short-term high but the long-term damage is no laughing matter.

“Along with the physical effects on the body, which themselves can be very serious, there are the psychological impacts associated with the abuse of any substance which can lead to addiction.”

In March 2015, a 22-year-old University of Brighton student was found dead with about 200 spent canisters in his room. An inquest found that Aaron Dunford’s death was caused by asphyxiation as a result of the chronic use of nitrous oxide gas.

Prior to his death, he had reportedly been unable to walk down stairs because his use of the drug has caused chronic nerve pain.

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