Stupid drug story of the week: NBC's Today show discovers huffing.

Media criticism.
Nov. 20 2009 4:53 PM

Stupid Drug Story of the Week

NBC's Today show discovers huffing.

In the annals of stupid drug reporting, a special commendation must be reserved for NBC's Today show, which on Nov. 19 aired (video) one of the stupidest drug stories in broadcast news. The program, which specializes in terrorizing mothers with sensationalist stories, discovered that today's kids are "huffing" inhalants from hair spray and air duster cans.

Today co-host Meredith Vieira called the huffing of inhalants "a deadly trend among tweens" before handing it off to reporter Jeff Rossen, who claimed that "new numbers show this is now the 'it drug' for young kids." He continues, "This quick high, all the rage among high school kids, is now invading elementary and middle schools. Now more eighth graders abuse household cleaners than marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogens combined."

The picture Today and Rossen paint of the prevalence of inhalants is enough to convince parents to ship their kids off to a minimum-security prison for their own safety and not release them until they reach the age of 25. But the segment completely overstates their use. The inhalants fact sheet provided by the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse states that "more 8th-graders have tried inhalants than any other illicit drug," which is very different than Rossen's formulation that more eighth graders use inhalants "than marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogens combined."

The NIDA page cites the research done by the University of Michigan's well-regarded Monitoring the Future survey, which has been querying students about their drug use since 1975. The most recent Monitoring the Future numbers (PDF), which come from 2008, show that 15.7 percent of eighth graders said they'd used inhalants at some point in their life, compared with 14.6 percent for marijuana/hashish, 3.3 percent for hallucinogens, and 3 percent for cocaine.

Those number are enough to horrify any parent, but do they show that inhalants have really become the "it drug" for kids?

No.

If you dial the Monitoring the Future study back to 1991, you find that more eighth graders were reporting that they'd used inhalants at some point in their life (17.6 percent). The lifetime prevalence number rose to 21.6 percent by 1995 but has basically been declining ever since.

The study's 2008 findings also show that more eighth graders reported using marijuana/hash annually (PDF) (10.9 percent) than inhalants (8.9 percent). Similar results are found when you look at 30-day (PDF) prevalence of use in 2008—5.8 percent for marijuana and 4.1 percent for inhalants.

The Today segment hits one of its many low points when its reporter asks a teenaged former user if she thought inhalants—specifically canisters of "air duster"—were "completely harmless." "Yes," she responds. "You don't get arrested for it, you don't go to rehab for it. People just kind of—they don't really think anything of it."

But Monitoring the Future's surveys argue against the notion that most kids think that inhalants are harmless. Since 1991, between 33.9 percent and 45.6 percent of eighth graders surveyed have believed that there was "great risk" (PDF) from doing inhalants once or twice, and between 59.2 percent and 71.6 percent have acknowledged the "great risk" in consuming the compounds regularly. In other words, the eighth graders represented in the Monitoring the Future survey are more savvy about the dangers inherent in inhalants than Meredith Vieira, Jeff Rossen, and the entire NBC team combined.

I could go on and on about the awfulness of the Today segment. I could write an angry paragraph about the hackery of playing "sad" music on the soundtrack as its reporter narrates the story of a 14-year-old who killed himself by inhaling Dust-Off. I could rail about the absence of any numbers to prove its assertion that huffing is a deadly trend. (It would be useful to know if more or fewer kids are killing or damaging themselves with inhalants than in previous years.) I could gripe about Today's failure to distinguish among the different kinds of inhalants (volatile solvents, aerosols, gases, nitrites, etc.) and the absence of any discussion of the nonlethal health dangers posed by the compounds. And I could close with a complaint about its hidden camera "gotcha," in which two child actors were video recorded buying inhalants in New York City stores.

I hope that few kids viewed Today's segment. Its tabloidy salaciousness is enough to give the impressionable—or the death-defying—the idea that they should try inhalants.

******

Don't do inhalants. They are an incredibly dangerous way to get high. (The Drug Oracle has spoken.) Thanks to reader Rob Lapp for alerting me to the segment. For a little ancient history on inhalants, see this chapter from Edward M. Brecher's 1972 book Licit and Illicit Drugs. Brecher was a wise man, and I still find his book valuable. I read all e-mail sent to slate.pressbox@gmail.com, and if you're as sharp as I think you are, you're already following my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type inhalants in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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