HC Deb 25 October 1994 vol 248 cc772-4 4.20 pm
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to deal with drug education. This is a wide subject, and I want to concentrate on one aspect—solvent abuse. More radical steps must be taken to save our children from solvent abuse than those proposed by the Government's Green Paper "Tackling Drugs Together". At present, it is not unlawful to sniff solvents. However, we should note that two schoolchildren die every week from solvent abuse, and many more damage themselves. Solvent-based products are cheap and available, and can be bought with pocket money. Many children graduate to soft drugs. Far too many end up in gaol after decades of drug addiction fed by crime.

We must take a critical look at what is happening behind our backs. It is estimated that 750,000 of our children have tried sniffing solvents, thereby putting their lives at risk. There is not a quiet, pleasant neighbourhood in the country left untouched by children experimenting with solvents. The youngest reported was only seven years old; the youngest to die was just nine.

After road accidents, solvent abuse is the second highest unnatural cause of death among people aged 10 to 16. Even in my constituency—leafy, pleasant and stable Sutton—the practice of solvent abuse is far more widespread than parents and teachers could ever imagine. It is not just an inner-city problem; it is a national curse affecting normal, decent families.

Indeed, it was not until I began to make inquiries among teenagers that I saw for myself the urgency of the problem. With the help of the charity Youth Awareness Programme—YAP—which is run by young people in Sutton to counter drug and solvent abuse, I have managed to get an inside view. Their experiences are backed by another charity, Re-Solv, which is a specialist in solvent abuse.

What I heard was highly disturbing. There is barely a family in Sutton where one child has not experimented with solvents. It is all too easy. Every household has at least 30 domestic products that can be turned to improper use, ranging from aerosols, such as hair sprays, to cigarette lighter refills. Worse, children have no idea how lethal they can be. The number of youngsters who die at first attempt is shocking.

Let us take the case of Jane—it is not her real name—who is aged 14. She attends a popular, well-managed local school which, on the face of it, would not have any such problems. However, Jane says otherwise. Peer group pressure is powerful, and solvent sniffing is widespread. She says, "We are doing it at the back of the class and the teachers don't notice. My first experience was with marker pens. You can get a good buzz from them."

Girls are being increasingly influenced by boys, who are now being introduced into the school. They graduate from marker pens to more powerful solvents. Sniffing then takes place outside school—down a quiet lane or even at home. Jane has now become a voluntary youth worker trying to stop her friends from using drugs. Their response is discouraging. They tell her, "We know what we're doing. Sniffing doesn't do any harm." Richard—again, not his real name—aged 15, is trying to do the same at his school and youth club. He said, "They are all doing it, and have been experimenting for years. It is difficult to get them to listen to me."

Olivia, now 18, who attended a Roman Catholic school, told me, "I started at school on solvents before moving on to drugs. It was so easy. It began with, 'Let's have a go on Tipp-Ex.' I started sniffing. I had head-thumping experiences and carried on. It gave me a lift. I liked it."

Then Olivia told me how they learned to get an even better sensation by drinking alcohol at the same time—beer or cider, both of which are affordable. She added, "The truth is, none of us had any idea that by breathing aerosol cans through the sleeves of our sweaters and directly into our mouths we could freeze our lungs and die. I saw it as an easy way to get a high and as an escape from everyday problems."

My teenagers then listed the most popular products they use. After aerosol-driven products come glues, drycleaning fluids, lighter and correcting fluids, not to mention butane gas, used in cigarette lighters and refill canisters. The latter is particularly lethal, and is the single cause of the greater number of deaths.

I congratulate the Government on their proposal to educate children in primary schools on such dangers, but much more needs to be done. Industry has a major responsibility, too, and must be educated to respond. It is, after all, its dangerous substances which cause the damage. Industries should be obliged by law to put a warning label on products that could be misused. I congratulate the British Aerosol Manufacturers Association on taking a lead in issuing guidelines. They must now become statutory.

In turn, the bona fide customer needs to be educated to buy non-solvent-based products. Industry must move to non-solvent-based products wherever possible, and grants for research into substitutes should be provided. The Government must make grants available for research and development into alternative butane-free propellants. In any case, pressure and incentives should be applied to manufacturers to use pump-action cans. Why not subject dangerous aerosols to excise duty, following the principle of paying less for green petrol?

The Government should consider strengthening the existing Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Act 1985 by establishing an enforcement agency. Pitifully few prosecutions have resulted so far. Retailers must be educated about solvent-based products. Only 43 per cent. of shopkeepers even know which products can be abused.

Every retailer must question and refuse to sell to a child who suddenly buys half a dozen aerosol cans. At the same time, he must be suspicious if there is a sudden and unexplained request for plastic bags which are used to enhance sniffing. If in doubt, do not sell. Make it tough to buy solvent-related products. There should be a ban on all sales of butane gas lighter refills to those under 16 years old. Finally, we should strengthen the Children Act 1989, giving social workers power to take action with young people at risk from sniffing solvents.

I trust that my Bill will have support from both sides of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Lady Olga Maitland, Sir Malcolm Thornton, Sir David Mitchell, Mr. Neville Trotter, Mr. Michael Alison, Mr. Michael Shersby, Mr. David Hanson, Mr. David Amess, Mr. Jonathan Evans, Mr. David Porter, Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and Mr. Michael Stephen.

  1. DRUG EDUCATION 38 words