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    This Is What You Need To Know About "Hippy Crack", And Why It Won't Kill You

    The media panic over nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, is overblown.

    The British red-top papers are in a bit of a tizz about nitrous oxide.

    The Sun

    The drug has become known in the media (and nowhere else) as "hippy crack", and there are dire warnings in the papers about the risks of taking it.

    Daily Mail / Via

    Nitrous oxide is legal to possess – it's routinely used to make whipped cream, and as a painkiller in dental surgery and childbirth – although it is illegal to sell it to people below the age of 18 if the seller believes it is going to be used for intoxication.

    It's nothing new - the drug has been a feature of clubs and festivals for years. The Home Office estimates that about 400,000 people in England and Wales take it each year.


    Usually by filling a balloon with the gas and inhaling it.

    No drug is completely safe. But nitrous is safer than most. Compare it to some other drugs. For instance, cocaine.

    ONS / SGUL / BuzzFeed / Via

    There were, in total, 13 deaths in England and Wales between 1993 and 2013 in which nitrous oxide has been mentioned on the death certificate.

    Assuming the 400,000 users in 2013 isn't too far off the average, that means that there are about 0.17 deaths per 100,000 users per year.

    According to the Office for National Statistics, about 750,000 people took cocaine over the last year, and over the last 18 years, 2,347 people have died of cocaine poisoning.

    Again, assuming the 750,000 figure is about right for all 18 years, that means there are about 17 deaths per 100,000 users per year.

    And take solvent abuse – sniffing glue or lighter fluid – which is comparable to nitrous oxide, as a legal substance being misused. According to Home Office death statistics and St George's University of London use statistics, there are about 60 deaths per 100,000 users per year.

    We could put it in a bit more context, and compare it to tobacco.

    NHS / Via

    There are about 10,000,000 smokers in the UK, and about 100,000 smoking-related deaths per year. A note of caution: this isn't a 100% fair comparison, as one reason people are scared of drugs like cocaine is that they can kill instantly, which tobacco doesn't.

    The papers claim to be worried about the Liverpool footballer Raheem Sterling, who was recently photographed apparently taking it. But he's about six times as likely to die playing football as he is taking nitrous oxide.

    DrugText / BuzzFeed / Via

    At least if you use these researchers' estimate that about one footballer in 100,000 will be killed by the sport each year.

    Again, this doesn't mean that it is safe. Depending on how it is taken, it can be harmful.

    Tim Sloan / Getty Images

    The very small number of deaths have come because the user has asphyxiated. The drug is a gas, and to take it, you have to inhale it. Some people have used it straight from a gas canister via a face mask, which means they haven't received any oxygen. The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs's website DrugScience says that "Inhaling nitrous oxide in a dangerous way will not cause any warning symptoms until the user suddenly becomes unconscious. Then brain damage, followed by death, can occur within minutes."

    Users can also give themselves frostbite if they take the drug straight from a canister.

    However, most users take the drug by pumping it into a balloon, and then inhaling from the balloon. "These risks are unlikely with the common balloon method," says DrugScience.

    If you take it a lot over an extended period, it can cause nerve damage in your fingers and toes, and vitamin deficiencies.

    But put it this way: the average user would have to take nitrous oxide for 400,000 years to give them a 50% chance of dying.

    If you want the maths, the probability of not dying in any given year is 100,000 - 0.17, or 0.9999983. If you multiply 0.9999983 by itself, you get the probability of dying in any given two years. If you multiply it by itself twice, three years. You have to multiply it by itself 400,000 times to get a figure of 0.507.

    So the media panic over "hippy crack" is overblown. You should be much more worried about people holding a can of lighter fluid. Or a football.

    Mike Egerton / PA / ThinkStock / BuzzFeed

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