Australian Institute of Criminology

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Inhalants, also called solvents or volatile substances, vaporise in air and cause intoxication when inhaled. Many are ordinary household products such as glue, aerosol sprays, butane gas, some cleaning fluids, paint thinners, chrome-based paints and petrol.

Most inhalants are depressants, which slow the brain and central nervous system activity. Their effects are similar to those of alcohol or cannabis. Small amounts can have a very rapid effect, causing a reduction in inhibitions, mild excitement or euphoria. Some users engage in reckless or dangerous behaviour while under the influence of inhalants.

They may cause anxiety. The effects of inhalants usually last about an hour and the initial excitement often gives way to drowsiness. Hangovers and headaches may occur and can last for several days.

Large doses of inhalants can lead to disorientation and loss of coordination as well as nausea, visual distortions and diarrhoea. Habitual use can cause flu-like symptoms such as sneezing, coughing and a runny nose. Frequent users may suffer nosebleeds, bloodshot eyes, anaemia, weight loss and sores around the mouth and nose with some long-term users becoming irritable, depressed, paranoid or aggressive.

Long-term use of inhalants can damage internal organs, the brain and the nervous system. The use of alcohol with inhalants can increase the severity of inhalant-related brain damage. Regular abusers can develop both psychological and physical dependence and a tolerance to inhalants. Withdrawal symptoms after heavy use are usually mild.

One of the main dangers associated with inhalant use are the associated accidents such as suffocation and reckless behaviour. 'Sudden sniffing death', although rare, has been reported in Australia.

As the name suggests, inhalants are inhaled by users, often by concentrating the fumes in plastic bags or tins.

As most inhalants are everyday items with common lawful uses, their simple possession is not illegal in Australia. Some states have laws allowing the apprehension of people affected by inhalants and the seizure of items.

In Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory, it is an offence to supply inhalants to anyone who, it is believed, intends to misuse them. There are some restrictions on the marketing of products which are likely to be misused as inhalants and many businesses, such as hardware stores, operate under codes of practice to reduce the availability of substances to users.

Although there are some restrictions on their purchase, intoxicants are readily available for legal purchase throughout Australia. Many users, however, will steal rather than buy substances. In a 2004 survey, 70,000 Australians aged 14 years and over indicated using inhalants in the preceding 12 months.

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