According to a 1998 study published bv the National Institute of Drug Abuse, not only had one in five teenagers in the United States used inhalants to get high, but their use in the late 1990s was almost as prevalent as marijuana use among eighth graders in this country. Indeed, Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey referred to inhalant abuse as "America's hidden drug problem." Despite these disturbing high levels of inhalant use among young people in the United States, few studies have examined the demographic and risk factors associated with their use.
For this article, we first review the rather limited literature on the risk factors associated with inhalant use; in so doing, we outline the theoretical concepts that guide our analyses. We then describe the sample and methodology for a household survey of adolescents in Washington state, which serves as the data base for our analyses. Then, we present a series of analyses that first, treat inhalant use as a dependent variable and compare the risk factors associated with lifetime prevalence with the risk factors for other psychoactive substances, and second, treat inhalant use as an independent variable predicting other problem behaviors. Finally, we offer a summary of our findings with indications for next steps to be taken in furthering our understanding of substance use risk/protective factors among minority adolescents.
Inhalant use can be deadly, of course, even with first time use. Yet inhalants often represent a young person's initial experience with psychoactive substances. At least part of the reason for this is the wide array of products that can be used as inhalants and their relatively low price. These products include cooking sprays, fabric protector, lighter fuel, nail polish, paint thinner and whipping cream aerosol, as well as the more commonly known glue and gasoline. In addition, there are indications that a history of inhalant use may place youth at high risk for severe drug abuse, including the use of intravenous drugs (Dinwiddie et al., 1991).
As Brecher (1972) noted, the use of inhalants for intoxication has a long and interesting history, dating at least to the mid-1700s, but it was not until the 1950s that the use of these substances first came to the public's attention in the United States. At that time, it was reported that young people seeking a "cheap high" were sniffing glue. And, although there have been literally thousands of studies addressing youth substance use and abuse, very few have paid specific attention to the risk and protective factors associated with the use of inhalants, and the relationship of inhalant use to other problem behaviors.
An early review of the inhalant abuse literature conducted by Barnes (1979) noted the high levels of use among Native-Indians, which he attributed to the acculturation stress associated with members of these groups. Barnes also indicated that inhalant users were more likely to use other drugs, including alcohol; that the school adjustment of inhalant users was poor; that there were strong influences of peers on inhalant use; that the families of inhalant users were less successful socioeconomically, more likely to be alcohol- or drug-involved, and less likely to be stable. Gilbert (1983) argued that what he referred to as the "disordered existence" of inhalant users predates their use of these substances, as inferred from the enduring nature of predisposing social and family problems that are more common in inhalant users.
In a more recent review of the literature on the factors related to inhalant use and behavioral outcomes associated with such use, Oetting and Webb (1992) noted that the phenomenon was associated with, among other things, family instability and dysfunction. In addition, they noted that inhalant abusers are more likely to have serious problems in school, which include high rates of absenteeism, a higher probability of being suspended and/or expelled, and poor academic performance. …