The recreational drug nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, will be banned under government plans to clamp down on anti-social behaviour. Possessing nitrous oxide for consumption will be made a criminal offence, a move that goes against the advice of the government’s advisory committee.

Nitrous oxide is used as an analgesic and in catering. However, it’s known to cause harm if consumed in excessive amounts. For example, it can lead to spinal cord degeneration as it interferes with vitamin B12 metabolism. ‘While the frequency of [spinal cord degeneration] is increasing with the increasing use of nitrous oxide, as a percentage of those affected, compared to those who consume it, it remains exceedingly rare,’ says David Caldicott, senior lecturer at the Australian National University Medical School.

He says the government’s announcement is more about ‘social control’ than medical issues, and queries how a zero-tolerance policy will be enforced. ‘There is a clear danger that those whose choice was once nitrous oxide will look elsewhere, to something that is of greater medical concern.’

‘This ban is not based on scientific evidence,’ says David Nutt, head of the centre for neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. ‘There is around one death per year in the UK from around 1 million nitrous oxide users, compared to around 28,000 deaths per year in around 40 million users of alcohol. The ACMD report is clear that harms do not warrant making personal possession illegal. The government has taken other factors into account in making this decision.’

Nutt is concerned that users have moved away from easy-to-detect metal canisters to cylinders that contain more gas. Higher doses have ‘the potential to cause more harm and, if so, would be a classic predicted impact of the perverse consequences of banning an innocuous drug potentially leading to greater harms from alternatives.’

But others have welcomed the announcement. Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night-Time Industry Association, says the industry has faced a long-standing battle with nitrous oxide, exposing staff and customers to anti-social behaviour and petty crime, with the current legislation leaving licensees and authorities powerless to tackle the problem. ‘This intervention has come at a critical time, as businesses across the UK have seen the challenges around nitrous oxide escalate dramatically in the last six to 12 months.’

Ellen Daniels, chief executive of the British Compressed Gases Association, also welcomes the new measures. ‘We have been campaigning for almost three years for a change in the law that would drive down nitrous oxide abuse and protect the public from the dangers of its misuse.’

Government data shows nitrous oxide use is already falling. In the year ending June 2022, 1.3% of 16–59 year-olds and 3.9% of 16–24 year-olds used nitrous oxide, around half as many as in the year ending March 2020.