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Survey: More teens abusing inhalants

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(CNN) -- Inhalant use is on the rise among teenagers, with more than 2 million of them abusing these products at some point in their lives, said a report released Thursday.

Also known as "huffing" or "sniffing," the abuse involves snorting or inhaling chemical vapors in common household products such as spray paint, glue or cleaning products to get high.

About 2.6 million 12- to 17-year-olds have used inhalants in the past, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated, based on a 2002 questionnaire answered by more than 23,000 youths. Two years earlier, the numbers were half a million less.

"The use of inhalants is a big concern since these products are legal and can result in irreparable brain damage or death," said Charles Curie of the survey's sponsor, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, at a news briefing in Washington. The sponsor is a Department of Health and Human Services agency.

"It's a silent epidemic in many ways, overshadowed and ignored perhaps because it is not considered a 'illegal' drug."

The jump in inhalant abuse comes at a time when overall drug use by teens is on a downturn. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America said last month that the overall number of teenagers abusing drugs has fallen by 10 percent since 1998 but that fewer of the youths believed inhalants were dangerous.

"The number of children abusing inhalants is very likely to increase -- and will continue increasing -- until we address and change the underlying attitudes kids have about this destructive form of substance abuse," Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the partnership, said in a statement.

Inhalant abuse also appears to be more prevalent in younger children. Data from the new survey shows that peak years are around the ages of 14 or 15, with almost 5 percent of this age group having used inhalants in the past 12 months.

"[Inhalants are] a particular threat to the youngest of young people," said John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Many times we have people harmed because they're thought to be too young to have a serious problem or be at serious risk."

Teens who abuse inhalants are also three times more likely to use other drugs, the report said.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, signs of possible inhalant abuse include red or runny eyes or nose; spots or sores around the mouth; the hiding of rags, clothes or empty product containers; and unusual breath odor or smell on clothing. Damage to internal organs, hearing loss, irregular heartbeat and even death are side effects, the commission says.

Also on Thursday, the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition released a set of guidelines for medical examiners and coroners for detecting inhalant deaths, a move to reduce the number that may go unreported.

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