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Risky Inhalants Make a Comeback

Use of 'poppers' on rise among gays in San Francisco

FRIDAY, Nov. 16, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The inhaled drugs known as poppers are making a comeback in San Francisco, and authorities want to launch an education campaign to make sure that a new generation of gay men doesn't sniff at their dangers.

"The public health message is very clear: Don't use poppers if you're concerned about HIV infection," says Dr. Grant Colfax, an AIDS official with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "It's disrespectful to your health and that of others to use poppers."

In October, Tom Ammiano, president of the city's Board of Supervisors, ordered health officials and the District Attorney's office to look into posting warning signs at stores that sell the drugs, which technically are illegal but sold openly by adult sex shops and Internet sites.

Poppers, made of compounds known as amyl or butyl nitrite, are little known in the heterosexual community, but they've been popular sexual boosters among gay men for decades.

Nitrites were first used in the 19th century to treat chest pains because they lower blood pressure. When sold by prescription, they come in tiny glass capsules that are broken to release the gas. The loud "pop" of the broken capsules gave them their street name.

When used as an underground drug, poppers come in tiny bottles. Many are given innocuous names like "video head cleaner" or "room odorizer" in a transparent attempt to disguise their purpose. The effects of poppers last for just a few minutes. They cause a sharp drop in blood pressure, lightheadedness, relaxation and a head rush that some say increases the pleasure of a sexual experience.

Poppers were especially popular in the 1970s and 1980s. "It was a commonly accepted drug, and it's never gone away," says Steve Gibson, a director at the San Francisco-based Stop AIDS Project.

In recent months, San Francisco AIDS activists have noticed stores becoming increasingly brazen in their displays of poppers, says Hank Wilson, founder of the advocacy group Survive AIDS. The drugs are appearing in front windows and on counters, he says.

"For a while they weren't being promoted at all, and now you see them all over the place. We're also concerned about the deception that's happening on the Internet, where people say they are perfectly safe, and they miss the [risks]."

Wilson and others convinced city officials to consider warnings for customers, although authorities appear unlikely to crack down on the actual sale of poppers. "We're not trying to ban or prohibit anything," Wilson says.

Poppers can cause a variety of health problems, including dangerously low blood pressure, headaches and nausea. A recent survey in San Francisco found that some gay men are taking poppers with the anti-impotency drug Viagra, a hazardous combination that could lower blood pressure fatally.

But young bodies often are strong enough to survive such problems. Medical experts officials are more worried about apparent connections between poppers and AIDS.

Colfax says men who use drugs seem to be at a higher risk of getting AIDS. The reasons aren't clear, but one possibility is that use of the drugs might make the body more susceptible to infection by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, he says. It's also possible that men under the influence of poppers may be more likely to engage in unprotected sex.

"Study after study has shown that people are more likely to get infected if they use poppers, and they're also more likely to take high risks," Colfax says.

However, the studies are controversial within the gay community, and opinions diverge widely between those who blame AIDS directly on poppers and those who say the drugs are a scapegoat.

Colfax has no doubts that poppers are trouble. "From a public health perspective, it's outrageous that these things can be marketed without adequate warnings. People are using them and are unaware of the risks. At the very least, warnings should be posted."

What To Do: To learn more about poppers, read this fact sheet from GayHealth.com. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has information about inhalant abuse.

SOURCES: Interviews with Grant Colfax, M.D., director of HIV Prevention Studies, San Francisco Department of Public Health; Hank Wilson, activist, San Francisco; Steve Gibson, co-executive director, Stop AIDS Project, San Francisco
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