Gas Abuse

Nitrous Oxide Campaign

Recreational inhalation abuse of Nitrous Oxide is prevalent in the UK. It can cause serious damage to the health and livelihood of the user.

It is commonly sold in small metal canisters containing the gas which is then either transferred into a balloon for inhalation using a dispenser or a ‘cracker’, which are readily available. For additional information, refer to BCGA Leaflet 19 –  Abuse of nitrous oxide. As such, BCGA is calling on the Government to implement a straightforward ban on consumer sales of Nitrous Oxide in order to curb this ongoing blight on our society.


12 % of substance-related deaths mention nitrogen or nitrous oxide on the death certificate. It is the second most commonly used substance among 16 to 24 year olds in England after cannabis, with half a million having used it in 2019. Unfortunately, there are many damaging risks of using the substance, such as:

  • Immediate death through asphyxiation, or by heart arrests triggered by the ‘Hypoxia’- a condition caused by a shortage of oxygen.
  • By the many dangers which users are exposed to whilst in the drunken state caused – including staggering into traffic, falling off balconies, drowning in swimming pools.
  • Repeated abuse which can cause serious damage to the central nervous system, leading to permanent loss of feeling and motor control in limbs and even paralysis.
  • Users attempting to inhale the gas directly from cylinders or from 8 g mini-canisters and ending up with severe injury and cold burns.
  • It is a powerful greenhouse gas, polluting the atmosphere and damaging the environment
  • Streets, parks, university campuses and even school grounds are littered with the used 8 g steel mini canisters, which are now the prevalent mode of supply – presenting a hazard to animals, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists
  • It is highly addictive, and can lead to crime to feed the habit, as well as causing misery for the user’s friends and family, just like with other substance abuse.

Legitimate Uses

There are legitimate and important uses of the gas, which would not be affected by a ban on retail sales, such as:

  • Uses as a medical gas in hospitals, clinics, dental practices and in midwifery – in all these areas the gas is properly controlled and supplied as a licensed medicine and administered under qualified medical supervision.
  • Nitrous Oxide is used to froth and propel synthetic cream. Professional catering use would not be affected by a retail ban. Synthetic cream dispense jugs are sold in the UK, but we suggest that their use is minor. Consumers could easily buy pre-mixed ‘squirty cream’ in cans.
  • The use of Nitrous Oxide to enhance the power of engines, often on specialist race cars and dragsters. This professional use would not be affected.

Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

BCGA was instrumental in working with Government to include Nitrous Oxide in the provisions of the Psychoactive Substances Act. This was introduced primarily to address the huge problem which was the open sale of then ‘Legal Highs’ such as Spice, Mamba, Purple Bombs, etc.

Prior to the Psychoactive Substances Act, it was commonplace to see balloons of Nitrous Oxide on sale at festivals, in clubs and pubs and in city centres – the balloons filled on site either from large cylinders (often stolen), or using 8 g mini canisters, in conjunction with otherwise empty cream dispense jugs.

BCGA also helped the NHS write extensive guidance on medical gas cylinder security. Large Nitrous Oxide cylinders are still targeted to be stolen from hospitals and elsewhere, and often reappear at illegal raves. The Police are aware of this and BCGA members often cooperate with intelligence and assist where possible.

The Psychoactive Substances Act outlawed the knowing or reckless supply of Nitrous Oxide for inhalation and has also had good effect in curbing the above Nitrous Oxide trade. If anyone is selling crackers or balloons alongside 8 g mini canisters, it is clear that they know the gas will be inhaled, because there is no other use for the cracker device and therefore sellers should be prosecuted under the Psychoactive Substances Act.


Latest Campaign Resources

Please see below for links to the latest campaign resources:



L7 The dangers of misusing gases. Revision 4: 2016

15/09/2016 Leaflets L7

Highlights the dangers of misusing gases and the potential hazards that can occur if gases are used irresponsibly.

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L19 Abuse of nitrous oxide. 2020

01/12/2020 Leaflets L19

Provides information on nitrous oxide and highlights the dangers from its abuse. It supports the BCGA campaign encouraging a ban on consumer sales.

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