Home > Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate - substance misuse [Nitrous oxide].

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate - substance misuse [Nitrous oxide]. (15 Jul 2020)

External website: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/2...

…….Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Frankie Feighan)I thank Deputy for raising this very important issue and for giving me the opportunity to address it as the newly-appointed Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy. I also want to take this opportunity to affirm the Government’s full commitment to implementing the national drugs strategy and its commitment to a health-led approach to drug use and the development of harm-reduction interventions. Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas that is most commonly found in pressurised metal containers and canisters and has a number of medicinal and industrial uses. Deputy Higgins rightly outlined all the various issues associated with it.

The gas can be misused to get euphoric effects and it can make users feel intoxicated. I am aware of the recent media reports of the increased use of nitrous oxide during the lockdown period which is of grave concern to me. However, it is important we have evidence-based information regarding the extent of its use. As a result, the HSE is currently in the process of gathering information on the prevalence of its use to inform any future actions that may be sanctioned. As the Deputy will be aware, the Department of Health works with the HSE to raise awareness of the dangers associated with drugs through the drugs.ie website. This website provides a comprehensive range of information and supports related to substance use, including nitrous oxide and other substances. The HSE also operates a drugs and alcohol helpline which is a free and confidential active listening helpline and an email support service offering non-directive support, information guidance and referral to anyone with a question or concern relating to drug and alcohol use. The helpline can be used by directly and by their family members. The Department of Health, as part of the introduction of the health diversion programme, is providing €100,000 in 2020 to develop a national harm reduction campaign to raise awareness of the risks associated with drug use. This will include the use of club drugs, festival drug use and new trends such as nitrous oxide. While this campaign was originally scheduled for the latter part of 2020, this timetable may need to be revised given the draw on resources in response to the challenges arising from Covid-19.

Recently, the HSE launched Know the Score, the first national evidence-based resource on alcohol and drugs for senior cycle students. It aims to engage young people in exploring and considering a wide range of topics related to the risk associated with alcohol and drugs. While these sources of information are most definitely helpful, it is also important to emphasise the crucial role played by parents in educating young people about the risks of substance abuse. Evidence-based content is available on drugs.ie regarding nitrous oxide, as well as the HSE booklet providing advice for parents on how to talk to young people about the risks associated with drug and alcohol use.

As Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I believe addressing the drug problem requires a multi-pronged approach that includes prevention initiatives in tandem with targeted harm reduction and treatment services. Particular vigilance is required in protecting young people from threats to their health and wellbeing from misuse of substances, including nitrous oxide.

Deputy Emer Higgins - I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is very encouraging that he has acted quickly by seeking a report from the HSE around the prevalence of nitrous oxide use in Ireland. Young people seem to have no idea that this product is killing and paralysing their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. I agree we need and education campaign so that they are aware of the consequences. We also need to start recording how many people are affected by abusing nitrous oxide. At the moment we are relying on media reports to tell us of hospitalisations and deaths. There should be official HSE data recording this problem so that we can understand it and the extent of it and I welcome the Minister of State’s move to gather this kind of information.

We need to limit the availability of this product. Due to the fact that it has genuine uses in the food and medical industries, it is freely available to legally purchase. I am not aware of any law banning its sale to persons under 18 years of age. It is illegal to sell it for human consumption but it is impossible to prove that that is the case and that leaves gardaí powerless to act. Belgium is planning to ban the sale of nitrous oxide to persons under 18 years of age and we should follow suit. The Netherlands is investigating banning nitrous oxide altogether and perhaps there is a point in us establishing whether its legal uses can be fulfilled by other means. If so, then maybe we should move to do the same.

Search engines should not be profiting at the expense of our children’s health by selling ads encouraging people to buy this product online. In fact, this product should not be available for purchase online at all. Our young people need to be aware that mild symptoms like a headache, tingling in the arms and legs or numbness can be the first step to ending up in a wheelchair or worse.

Will the Minister of State commit not just to working on a strategy that communicates the dangers of nitrous oxide but to work on a strategy that reduces access to the purchase of these gas canisters which are on sale right now online for as little as €1? I did not have to search very hard last night to find this used canister. They litter my local parks in Lucan, Clondalkin, Rathcoole and Palmerston. We need to act now to protect out young people.

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