Rishi Sunak has said a review into laughing gas use by children and teenagers will be carried out more quickly following a Sky News investigation into a spike in hospital admissions.
During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, he was asked by Labour MP Rosie Duffield if he would be criminalising the sale of nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas or nos.
She said one of the “alarming” aspects, highlighted by Sky News’ investigation, was the change in the size of canisters available from 8g to 620g and a tripling in ambulance callouts related to their use.
But she said the young people buying laughing gas should not face criminal charges.
“Isn’t it time to take urgent action against those knowingly selling this harmful and potentially life-changing substance to children under age?” Ms Duffield asked.
Mr Sunak said he shared her concern about nitrous oxide’s “detrimental impact on communities, its contribution to anti-social behaviour”.
He said the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is conducting a review into the use of nitrous oxide and it is looking at this question.
The PM added: “The home secretary has asked them to expedite that review and we will consider their advice carefully when it is received.”
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Laughing gas: Sky goes undercover Spike in hospital admissions
Nitrous oxide, commonly inhaled through balloons inflated with it, can give users a 30-second high that makes them feel dizzy and lightweight.
It is legitimately used in hospitals, in dental surgeries and in professional kitchens for whipped cream or as a food preservative, however, it is increasingly being used by children and young teenagers to get a short high.
Doctors have reported a spike in hospital admissions from its use, prompting the review.
Suppliers can get fined and receive up to seven years in prison, but only four people have been held in relation to nitrous oxide in the West Midlands since the Psychoactive Substances Act was passed in 2016, banning its production, supply and trafficking for human consumption.
Easy to buy canisters
Sky News went undercover to investigate how difficult it was to buy the canisters – and found it was incredibly easy.
We were given a list of shops that had already been reported to West Midlands Police as being suspected of selling nitrous oxide.
Our reporter walked up to the counter of the first shop and asked for a canister. The woman replied, “Yes, which one? The big one?”.
She leaned down to pick up a canister bigger than a hairspray can from below the counter, popped it in a shopping bag, and offered a receipt for our £30 purchase.
The next shop we entered took us through a door in the back to their stack of nitrous oxide canisters. They asked us to hand them our rucksack and they put the canister inside, no questions asked.
Shop assistants did not ask how old we were or what we intended to do with the nitrous oxide and every shop added in a packet of party balloons which are commonly used to inhale the gas.
Musa, not his real name, is evidence of what laughing gas can do to the human body.
The 20-year-old is facing potentially life-changing consequences after he was rushed to hospital just weeks ago after losing the feeling in his legs and feet.
In the weeks before, Musa was consuming multiple large canisters of nitrous oxide, almost on a daily basis.
His MRI scan shows he has developed a spinal cord abnormality, and doctors cannot yet tell when or to what extent this will repair.
“This could be a permanent thing. It’s messed up my life. I’ve got dreams and ambitions,” Musa said.
Image: Dr David Nicholl demonstrating laughing gas canisters Dozens of young people admitted a month
Dr David Nicholl, the clinical lead for neurology at Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, said he sees dozens of patients aged 16-24 years old admitted to his ward every month for nitrous oxide abuse.
He said this is a huge rise from previous years and claims admissions have increased since large canister brands began to flood the market in 2021.
Other regions are experiencing the same, with 999 calls for incidents relating to nitrous oxide to London Ambulance Service more than tripling in a year.
These patients can suffer from a range of problems, from loss of mobility to mental health issues and sexual dysfunction. Two nitrous oxide patients have even had to have drains inserted into their brains to save their eyesight.
In very severe cases the consequences can be deadly, with nitrous oxide related to the deaths of 62 people since 2001.
“Maybe once every five or six years, I’ll see a patient who’s had a stroke from taking cocaine. Yet, every week, I’m seeing this in my ward. So from my point of view, this is actually a bigger problem,” Dr Nicholl said.