Newcastle City Council's Trading Standards service is continuing to warn consumers and businesses in Newcastle on the dangers of nitrous oxide, also known as 'laughing gas' or 'hippy crack'.

What is nitrous oxide?

Nitrous oxide is a substance with a number of legitimate uses in medicine and catering. It is also the second most popular recreational drug amongst young people, with 7.6% of 16-24 year olds responding to the 2013/2014 Crime Survey for England and Wales reporting nitrous oxide use in the last year. When inhaled, the substance can make users feel euphoric and relaxed, with some reporting hallucinations.

What are the legitimate uses?

It is a medicinal product and, when mixed with oxygen, it is used to treat analgesia and as an anaesthetic. Use as a medicinal product typically involves large cylinders containing the gases, which are administered to the patient using a face mask in a variety of settings such as hospitals, dental surgeries and by ambulance crews.

Nitrous oxide is also an approved food additive (E942) when used as a propellant for whipped cream. Nitrous oxide is also used in vehicle engines.

Where and how is it used recreationally?

Nitrous oxide is now being used recreationally in a number of settings such as clubs, private residences and is particularly prevalent at festivals. It is commonly sold in small metal canisters containing the gas, which is then transferred into a balloon for inhalation using a dispenser or a 'cracker'. These small metal canisters are sold in bulk online presented for use as a whipped cream propellant.

What are the risks?

Inhaling nitrous oxide can be dangerous, and can lead to loss of blood pressure, fainting and even heart attack. Prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide may result in bone marrow suppression and poisoning of the central nervous system. These risks are likely to be increased if the exposure to the gas is combined with alcohol or other drugs.  

Media coverage

To see coverage on local media related to the related issues go to Metro Radio on the 2 March 2015, Metro Radio on the 10 March 2015 and Metro Radio on the 16 April 2015.

To see various media articles highlighting the dangers associated with the abuse of nitrous oxide go to the Chronicle of the 19 August 2015. 

To see various media articles highlighting the implications to businesses and individuals of supplying nitrous oxide illegally go to Tyne Tees of the 5 January 2017, BBC news of the 5 January 2017,  the Chronicle of the 7 January 2017 and the Chronicle of the 6 June 2018.    

To see an article where the Court of Appeal has ruled on the illegality of the use of nitrous oxide in relation to the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 go to the Daily Mail of the 1 November 2017.    

Court of Appeal Case

In the important judgement of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), R Vs Chapman and others (2017) EWCA Crim 319, the Court held that canisters of nitrous oxide designed and intended for food use and not for medicinal use, are not "medicinal products" (within the meaning of the Human Medicines Regulations 2012) for the purposes of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. 

Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

On the 26 May 2016, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 (pdf, 285 kb) came into force.

To see guidance for retailers on the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 go to Guidance (pdf 209 kb)

Go to our webpage: Psychoactive Substances Act 2016  

Useful contacts

Home Office

Northumbria Police

For any information contact the Trading Standards Service, Directorate of Operations and Regulatory Services, City of Newcastle upon Tyne, Civic Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8QH. Phone: 0191 2116121 


Page last updated: 
16 November 2018
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