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Inhalant Abuse: Growing Problem Often Starts With Very Young

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Deaths from inhalant abuse are underreported, says Siegel, because "no one is closely looking for this problem. Also, there's a stigma associated with this kind of death. Because of that, families often cover it up."

"It's happening in the good schools, in all the schools," says Siegel. "There are some good statistics from the University of Michigan that close to 20% of 8th graders are abusing inhalants, putting their lives at risk. While teens from 12 to 14 years old are most likely to abuse inhalants, statistics also suggest that very young children, 7 and younger, are abusing the stuff.

Drug education programs that target 13- to 15-year-olds just aren't cutting it, Siegel tells WebMD. "That's too late. Parents need to be talking to kids at a very early age, 3 or 4."

And when parents talk to young kids, call them "poisons," not drugs, advises Weiss. "Kids understand that. From an early age, they're talked to about poisons. 'Don't touch that, that's a poison.' Parents feel more comfortable talking to them about it that way. And kids get it."

He's seen the dramatic results that approach can have. From 1990 to 1994, Weiss conducted a statewide educational program in schools throughout Texas -- and saw inhalant abuse drop by 50% in grades K through six; in high schools, it went down about 20%. When that program lost its funding, the numbers did a quick turnaround. Kids went back to huffing, Weiss tells WebMD.

Also, parents and other authority figures should remember that they are role models. "People use helium at parties to talk like Donald Duck." Siegel tells WebMD. He says it may not cause sudden death but it is a bad example for kids.

While most inhalants come from homes, 37 states regulate the sale to minors of certain products that can be huffed. Massachusetts requires retailers to ask for ID on glue or rubber cement purchases and maintain a log of these sales for the police to view at any time. In 19 states, huffers can be fined or subject to jail time or mandatory treatment. Also, in some parts of Texas, laws require merchants to keep spray paints under lock and key.

"But kids can get spray paint at home, at school -- it's a ubiquitous product," Weiss says. "Laws are not the answer. The answer truly is education and prevention."

 

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