12 Sep 2014

Warning huffing on the increase

3:39 pm on 12 September 2014

Anti drug campaigners are warning butane huffing is on the rise again, and are condemning the lack of action to combat the potentially explosive problem.

The Mangere house where three teenagers were badly injured while huffing.

The Mangere house where three teenagers were badly injured while huffing. Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

Three teenagers were seriously injured when one lit a cigarette while they were huffing - which involves inhaling butane transferred from a deodorant can to a plastic bag - in Auckland this week.

The explosion left the trio with serious burns to their arms, faces and legs. Two of them are still under intensive care in hospital, while the third is receiving specialist burns treatment.

Middlemore Hospital said two girls, aged 14 and 15, and a 17-year-old boy were all in a stable condition and one had been moved to the National Burn Centre.

Police said all three would be in for a long stay in the burns unit.

The Drug Foundation, and others, are pointing to a highly critical coroner's report calling for action two years ago. They are demanding to know why nothing has happened, and why more lives have been put at risk.

Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said this latest incident showed the practice was extremely dangerous.

"Taking away the risk of explosions and fires, you're still dealing with a gas, with a substance that can kill people on their very first use," Mr Bell said.

"I think huffing is one of the the most dangerous drug-using practices that we have in New Zealand."

Problem for young people

The Chief Coroner's report on huffing two years ago shows the problem is concentrated among young people; most of the 63 people killed while huffing between 2000 and 2012 were aged under 24.

The problem was on the rise again now synthetic drugs were illegal, Mr Bell said.

Odyssey House youth services advisor Ben Birks Ang said he had also heard that.

"I have heard anecdotally that there's a few people that are using it in place of other substances," he said.

"What I do notice is that any time that somebody gives up one substance, that there's a tendency to try and sample other ones."

Grant Christie, a youth addiction psychiatrist working in Auckland, said the common reasons young people people huffed were accessibility and curiosity.

"I think huffing and solvent use tends to be the kind of substance which younger teenagers will get into, because they're wanting to experiment and try different things.

"If there's not alcohol around, or cannabis, or other substances they'll be more likely to get into that.

"That's unfortunate, I guess, because it is so dangerous."

A special report released last year by the Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee was also critical, saying New Zealand did not have a well-organised approach to the issue.

No responsibility

But Mr Bell said nothing had been done, and the Government was not willing to take responsibility over the problem.

"It's a real shame that action wasn't taken from that coroner's report. We've had other agencies calling for action in this area over the last few years, and politicians haven't done anything about it.

"No government department will take sole responsibility. We think this issue sits with the Minister of Social Development and we think more resources need to go into this to co-ordinate those community-level efforts."

The office for Social Development Minister Paula Bennett referred Radio New Zealand to Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne, saying the issue is a health problem.

Mr Dunne agreed no single agency had taken responsibility.

"I think the incident is another wakeup call that is simply saying 'well these things happen from time to time and there's not much we can do about them' is unacceptable," he said.

"I don't think that's really been the attitude but that could be the image that's given off and I think it's time now to sit down and really come up with a much better, co-ordinated approach than we've been able to to date."

Mr Dunne said he would try to raise the issue with the ministries of social development, justice and health after the election to come up with a strategy, and that the police and the Drug Foundation should be included in those discussions.

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