Image courtesy of N2O Know the Risks.
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‘N2O Know the Risks’ campaign launched to raise awareness about the health risks of Nitrous Oxide

Tower Hamlets Council and Queen Mary University have developed a workshop programme to educate young people about the under-reported risks of using the drug.

‘The N20 Know the Risks’ initiative was launched in Tower Hamlets this week to address the issue of nitrous oxide use in our borough. Tower Hamlets Council and Queen Mary University of London are jointly funding the campaign. It will involve educational billboards and workshops for young people. The workshops will be delivered by the Osmani Trust.

This is the latest in a string of efforts by the Council to tackle the issue of nitrous oxide use in our borough. There is growing concern about the rising number of young people admitted to hospital with nerve damage after using the drug.

The workshops will take place in secondary schools and youth centres. Additionally, the Police and Tower Hamlets enforcement officers will receive training on how to discuss the risks of nitrous oxide with young people.

Last year, the Council put in place a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO). This allowed enforcement officers to issue fines of up to £100 for using the drug and engaging in anti-social behaviour associated with it, such as littering and noise nuisance. 

This campaign takes a different approach, instead focusing on education. ‘We’re not here to lecture or scare anyone, we want to empower people with the knowledge of the risks of nitrous oxide to inform them if faced with the decision to take balloons’ said Devan Mair, a medical student at Queen Mary, who developed the programme.

As part of the new initiative, authorities will offer first-time offenders issued fines under the PSPO the opportunity to attend a workshop. If they attend, the fine will be forgiven. Mair says this will avoid criminalising young people. 

Parliament voted overwhelmingly to further regulate the drug in September 2023. It will be reclassified as a Class C drug. This means those found in possession of the drug could face two years in prison and an unlimited fine. 

Professor Alastair Noyce, a leading neurologist at the Centre of Preventative Neurology, helped develop the programme. He and other leading clinicians wrote a letter to the government in response to the reclassification.

They argue that making possession of nitrous oxide illegal will have little impact on its use and that the government should target suppliers instead. They state that the government’s plan is ‘unlikely to translate to health benefits in [their] patients’.

Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, ‘nos’ or ‘balloons’, is popular with 16-24-year-olds. People inhale the gas from balloons, which leads to a 20-30-second high. The gas is held in small silver canisters, which can often be seen littering the street.

The drug is difficult to regulate, as it has many legal uses. People use it at home and in restaurants to make whipped cream, and hospitals use it for pain relief.

The workshops are based on the work of Professor Noyce. His research demonstrates that nerve damage can occur after frequent use. The drug damages the nervous system by disrupting the metabolism of vitamin B12. This can lead to spinal or nerve damage and, in the worst cases, paralysis. 

Michelle Lowe-Holder, an artist and Whitechapel resident, has been campaigning about nitrous oxide use in our area for six years. She wants the ‘very casual culture’ around its use to change and welcomes the Council’s new campaign.

Lowe-Holder argues that the litter the drug creates leads to a snowball effect. People see a dirty street and engage in more anti-social behaviour because the area feels ‘out of control’. 

She has collected thousands of canisters from the streets of Tower Hamlets. She has turned them into sculptures, clothes, and a ‘Nos Box’ for disposing of spent canisters.

Lowe-Holder is looking for a new home for the Nos Box after vandals damaged it soon after its installation.

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