Small metal capsules that litter the sidewalks, nitrous oxide capsules are widely consumed among young people. Usually used in baking to make whipped cream, their use is diverted to become a drug.
Melina, 21, discovered nitrous oxide capsules during an electro party with friends. For Héloïse, 18, it was during a medicine integration evening. Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, is consumed today in a festive and social setting by many young people.
Since June 2021, the government has established a national decree prohibiting the sale and consumption by minors. Despite this government decision, this product still circulates in the hands of young people who often underestimate the health risks.
Nitrous oxide: a product as harmful as alcohol or cannabis
“I always have the feeling that I manage the thing”told AFP Melina (first name changed), a pharmacy student who discovered the product a year ago.
She claims never to consume more than ten cartridges in one evening and space out her takes, but admits having one day had to rescue a friend, “completely revolted”, when they both had just inhaled “proto”. “I had to force her mouth open to vomit because she was half choking,” she says.
Used as an analgesic in medicine, but also in kitchen siphons for whipped cream, this gas is prized for its short psychoactive effects – of the order of three to four minutes. Most often, this product is inhaled through balloons inflated by capsules or even by huge carboys.
“We see more and more of them in consultation”explains to AFP Hélène Donadieu Rigole, head of the addiction service at Montpellier hospital (South).
In 2021, 5.5% of 3rd grade students (about 14 years old) say they have ever used nitrous oxide capsules, boys twice as often as girls, according to investigation EnCLASS from the French Observatory of Drugs and Addictive Tendencies (OFDT), which shows much higher figures for alcohol, tobacco or cannabis.
“Among older students, it is common to find nitrous oxide in the evening. There is most often recreational use and, unfortunately, in some people problematic use with medical and psychological consequences“, adds the addictologist.
The risks incurred can be asphyxiation, loss of consciousness or even burns. However, in the event of repeated use, whether or not associated with high doses, severe disorders neurological, hematological, psychiatric and cardiac may occur, warns the Interministerial Mission for the Fight against Drugs and Addictive Behaviours.
A law of June 2021 prohibits the sale of nitrous oxide to minors and its marketing in drinking and tobacco outlets. But nitrous oxide capsules can be purchased very easily, in large quantities and at low cost on resale sites. It is also possible to buy them through Snapchat accounts – with nicknames followed by a red balloon emoticon – which offer home deliveries, even at night.
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Consumption influenced by groups of friends
On social networks, the balloons are displayed in the Instagram “stories” of friends, or in the mouths of influencers, footballers or rappers.
Gold, “peers play a central role in the emergence and maintenance of curiosity” to experiment with the product, because “they positively describe the effects of the gas to the novice and insist on its supposedly harmless character in case of apprehension”notes the OFDT, in a recent report.
“When I saw my best friend taking it, she who doesn’t drink and isn’t the type to do silly things, I said to myself: if she can test it, it won’t matter to me either.“, says Héloïse (first name changed), just of age when she started taking nitrous oxide regularly with other medical students.
“I stopped because I thought it was a bit too much social consumption“, says the student.
But by advising on the actions to adopt to minimize the risks (sit down, do not combine substances, etc.), “peers also play a regulatory and monitoring role”tempers Clément Gérome of the OFDT.
For this researcher, “the question of vulnerabilities is central to explaining why we leave the festive framework and fall into problematic consumption”. He cites economic precariousness, family problems, school failure, as factors of this vulnerability.
According to him, some young people who consume in a festive setting do not feel concerned by massive consumption of several dozen cartridges per shot. Hence the interest, explains the researcher, of setting up “prevention campaigns adapted” to different types of consumers.