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Volatile Substance Abuse

What is VSA?

Volatile Substance Abuse (VSA) is the practice of inhaling common household volatile substances like glues, gases and aerosols in order to get high. It was commonly called glue sniffing in the 70s, when it first emerged as an issue in the UK, and it remains a serious social problem, mostly among young people. In any home there are around 50 products, all with a legitimate purpose, which can be abused in this way.


However, VSA, unlike most drug abuse, can kill instantly, often the very first time someone tries it. At its height in the early 90s three young people were dying each week.


Volatile Substance Abuse is a continuing problem with no single solution. It cuts across age, gender and social boundaries and is of great concern to those involved with the manufacture and supply of abusable substances. As one part of the supply side, BAMA has worked for many years with the two main charities involved, Re-Solv and SOLVE IT and Government and other NGOs to help educate and share expertise to try to raise awareness of VSA and its dangers.

Like all consumer products, aerosols are safe when used properly.  Deliberately abusing any consumer product may have serious, even fatal consequences, and aerosols are no exception. 



What do BAMA and its members do to help prevent VSA?

BAMA acknowledges that VSA needs to be tackled in a variety of ways,   including education, advice and counselling, supply controls and other measures that have been shown to be effective. 

BAMA has been concerned about VSA since the 1970s and has been actively involved in many initiatives to educate professionals, retailers, young people and consumers in general about the hazards. For many years, Government and BAMA's policy on warning labels was not to apply them as it might attract the attention of potential abusers to abusable products. Over the years, evidence showed that this is unlikely to be the case and BAMA voluntarily adopted the warning 'Use only as directed. Intentional misuse by deliberately concentrating and inhaling the contents can be harmful or fatal'. Most other abusable products remained unlabelled.


In the mid 90s, a major research project was undertaken by the Department of Trade and Industry Consumer Safety Unit with the VSA Industry Forum, chaired by BAMA. The research showed a strong response from consumers that a new clear warning was required.


After careful consideration of the issues around labelling, BAMA recommends that all aerosols should be labelled on the back with the warning about the dangers of volatile solvent abuse. Due to there being no information on a fatal dose or the effect of mixing products, this should be regarded as a general warning about the risks of solvent abuse. It should be on all aerosol packs and not just those considered to be potentially abusable.


In July 2008 BAMA won the ‘Social Initiative Award’ for its campaign to prevent Volatile Substance Abuse (VSA), awarded by the Trade Association Forum, which promotes best practice within trade associations.  (Details available separately).