SINGAPORE: Singapore has reported its first case of laughing gas addiction, after a 20-year-old tertiary education level student was discovered to have been addicted to nitrous oxide.
His family found large numbers of whippets - dispensers for the gas - in his room earlier this year. The youth who was suffering from major depression, had been huffing nitrous oxide - better known as laughing gas - for three years.
In a recent journal published by the Institute of Mental Health, the youth’s case study was highlighted as the first reported case of nitrous oxide addiction in Singapore.
The report aims to warn the community that such inhalant abuse has come to Singapore and the region.
Medical researchers said the study findings were crucial, as they debunk current research which states that the colourless, sweet-tasting gas - ranked the seventh most popular drug in the latest Global Drug Survey - is not addictive due to its short-lived high.
The patient who started out with one to two whippets a day, enjoyed a short-lived euphoria followed by a refreshing nap of 20 minutes.
But this soon got worse as he became psychologically dependent on it.
He was treated for major depression and subsequently started using nitrous oxide, Professor Lambert Low, consultant at the National Addictions Management Service from the Institute of Mental Health, told Channel NewsAsia.
"He had a short-lived euphoria and gradually it escalated quite rapidly to 100 whippets a day and tended to use it alone," he said.
This case demonstrated the "addictive potential" of the drug, said Professor Low.
"There was also a clear demonstration of tolerance - the building up of body's resistance to the drug," he added. "There was also a sense that it was out of control. That's why he needed to seek help.”
The latest Global Drug Survey findings revealed this year showed that nitrous oxide ranked as the most popular psychedelic drug in the United Kingdom for the past three years.
The substance is popularly used as a recreational drug at music festivals and parties in the UK and the United States.
But in recent years, the craze for laughing gas has came to Asia.
In June this year, a South Korean youth was found dead in his hotel room after inhaling laughing gas.
The widespread use of laughing gas at entertainment venues has also prompted authorities in Thailand to crack down on the sale of “laughing gas balloons” targeted at tourists.
In Singapore, the gas is more commonly used in surgery and dentistry as an anaesthetic and as a mixing and foaming agent in whipped cream.
"YOU JUST KEPT WANTING TO DO MORE"
While there are no official statistics on the recreational use of laughing gas in Singapore, it’s not a foreign concept among youths here.
Jenny (not her real name) had her first hit eight years ago when she was in her teens.
“It was a friend’s birthday and we were at Sentosa because someone booked a hotel room," she said. "A few of us bought boxes of laughing gas which came in chargers - or what we call ‘nangs’ - which come from whipped cream dispensers."
"The party had lots of alcohol and everyone was pretty drunk, and when we took a hit, the high lasted for about ten seconds."
“But as the high was so short, you just keep wanting to do more hits," she added. "The next thing you know, the whole floor is covered in bullet casings because of the cartridges."
“The minute we tried the first hit, we had to hold on to the table because our head was spinning. The music also got really loud, your ears got pretty hot and then five to ten seconds later, you're done."
"It was pretty fun.”
Last year, the UK government made nitrous oxide illegal.
In Singapore, it is not listed as a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act and the Intoxicating Substances Act.
Nitrous Oxide which is sold in canisters, is readily available at bakeries and e-commerce websites for as little as 70 cents per whippet.
Medical experts warned that given the global trend of using the substance as a recreational drug, laughing gas inhalation could become a serious problem if the issue goes unchecked.
In response to queries from Channel NewsAsia, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) said that nitrous oxide has legitimate industrial uses and is commonly used in surgery and dentistry as an anaesthetic.
“As such, a balanced approach towards regulation of such a substance is necessary and it may not be feasible to ban the supply and sales of the substance once signs of misuse surfaces," a CNB spokesperson said.
"It is important that the public be aware that misuse of any substance other than for their stated intended use may have negative effects on one’s health."
“For example, long-term effects of nitrous oxide misuse include disorientation, depression, and damage to the nervous system and other organs."
"The public should not misuse or experiment with any substances and should only use them in a manner that’s stated for its intended use.”
In a similar example back in the 1980s, glue sniffing became a problem in Singapore which led to a series of measures being implemented to curb its misuse.
One such measure required sellers of glue and thinner to register the particulars of their customers, and anyone caught selling or offering to sell it for the purpose of intoxification, could be imprisoned for up to two years, fined S$5,000 or both.