Poppers – the Sweet Smell of Hypocrisy

September 29, 2008

Who’d ever thought a little glass bottle could cause so much damage? Originally developed to help people with serious heart conditions, these dangerous drugs are still being sold all over the country – and on the gay scene you can’t miss them.

GayMafiaWatch reports on one of today’s biggest and most controversial sexual health scandals which first emerged back in the early 1980’s when gay saunas, bathhouses and sex clubs in California stopped selling poppers in response to public health concerns at the height of the first AIDS crisis.

At the time little research had been conducted on the causes and affects of HIV/AIDS scientists and community figures agreed on one thing – poppers were in some way connected to an increase in unsafe sex amongst gay men, and inevitably HIV. Dozens of reputable studies exist that strongly suggest the direct inhalation of poppers can predispose the user to developing AIDS related illnesses including many types of cancer which gay men in particular tend to fall victim to such as Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Take a look at this comprehensive list of research published in the Lancet, the Journal of Toxicology-Clinical Toxicology, the British Medical Journal and the American Journal of Medicine to name just a few.

In 1990 the Anti-Drug Abuse Act came into force, effectively outlawing the commercial retail sale of poppers right across the United States and in 1996 the Medicines Act ruled that retailers selling poppers could be prosecuted in the United Kingdom. After escaping prosecution for many years through the abuse of a legal loophole which allowed poppers to be legally sold to the public as long as they are marketed as “Room odorisers” or ”Aromas” on the 24th August 2008 the most commonly sold formulation of these foul smelling, euphoria inducing gay glamour drugs (Isobutyl-Nitrate) finally became illegal.

The Government assumed the country would at last be free from the scourge of poppers once and for all but they assumed wrong. The manufacturers were already one step ahead of the game and simply sidestepped the move by altering the formula used from Isobutyl Nitrate to Isopropyl Nitrate . Many had already prepared the withdrawal and replacement of their existing brands with completely legal alternatives that are just as potent, just as profitable and just as dangerous.

50% of gay men admit to using poppers in the past 12 months”
Terrance Higgins Trust Gay Men’s Survey 2008

Cancer in a Bottle?

It’s well known that many gay men use poppers to relax whilst having anal sex, especially for the first time. Younger gay men or those just coming out are therefore much more likely to find a use for poppers, not only for the pleasurable and relaxing affects making anal sex more comfortable but also to allay fear and anxiety associated with their first gay sexual encounters. Unlike with alcohol and cigarettes, the relatively unregulated and discreet nature and convenience offered by by sex shops, saunas and internet mail order services ensures that any age restriction on the sale of poppers to under-age customers would be difficult to enforce. HIV is now at it’s highest rate ever, particularly amongst the current generation of young gay men in our big cities, many of whom failed to received adequate sexual health education at school due to Section 28 of the local government act which outlawed the “promotion of homosexuality” we are allowing our youth to dive head first into a minefield of risks, aware of the consequences.

Despite the massive amount of public resources being ploughed into safer-sex messages targeting Crystal-Meth users, binge drinkers and participants in other more well know high risk sexual behaviours, alarming research carried out by the Medical Research Council and the Terrance Higgins Trust has recently declared that poppers appear to be “the only drug associated with an increased risk of acquiring HIV” and concluded “if you sniff poppers there’s an increased risk of HIV transmission if you have unprotected sex”. In 2007 the Terrance Higgins Trust also released findings of a major new study which discovered 80% of HIV positive men used poppers compared to 58% who remained negative. The connection between HIV and poppers is indisputable.


Both human and animal studies indicate that poppers use significantly suppresses the immune system.” US Toxicology-Clinical Study

Flavour of the month?

Popular gay magazines, especially the free ones have numerous adverts promoting poppers from at least three separate retailers. None of these adverts state what they are intended to be used for, what the dangers are or what they contain. The current advertising campaign for Clone Zone’s relaunched brand of Ispoproyl Nitrates are covered with slogans such as “for your lifestyle” “extra strong aroma” and “new sensation”. One big gay nightclub in Manchester has even named a club night in honour of a popular brand of poppers and shamelessly used the bold imagery of poppers bottles in it’s promotional flyers and magazine adverts. They also sell poppers behind the bar. OutNorthWest regularly features similar prominent advertisements for poppers.

In it’s September 2008 pride special, timed to coincide with the complete Europe-wide ban on the sale Isobutyl-Nitrate, Clone Zone took out an entire half page advertisement dedicated to promoting their new “Xtreme Xtra Strong” brand of poppers. Directly beneath it on the same page is an advert for Cheshire’s gay and bisexual men only “Sauna Sauna” which also sells poppers. Despite featuring a very brief paragraph contained within an unrelated advertisement from the Terrance Higgins Trust on page 46 providing a very brief overview of the risks associated with poppers out the 87 pages in OutNorthWest, twelve of these pages promote outlets that sell poppers direct to the public. Despite the immense opportunity to do so in this free, glossy, popular publication which claims to have a readership of over 60,000 people – it’s publishers, the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (formerly Healthy Gay Manchester) failed to mention the news or the reasons behind the ban on Isobutyl-Nitrate. Given all the evidence and the fact that their main mission is to improve the health and well-being of the gay community surely they should be more concerned about the cost to our health than the revenues of their advertisers? The priorities of this NHS funded organisation are back to front to say the least.

Explicit adverts for new brands of poppers that remain legal due to a legal loophole. Adverts are often found places alongside adverts for gay saunas and escort services

Explicit adverts for new brands of poppers that remain legal due to a legal loophole. Adverts are often found places alongside adverts for gay saunas and escort services

Good for your night out? But how good for your health? Part of the above advert was printed in the September issue of OutNorthWest the official publication of the Lesbian and Gay Foundation, a charity which was established to promote sexual health within the North West’s gay community. The magazine makes most of it’s revenue from advertising. The magazine is available in libraries, colleges, universities, doctors surgeries, GUM clinics, clubs and bars where poppers are sold and GayMafiaWatch has had reports of the magazine including the adverts in several Manchester High Schools. The charity also receives funding from the local Primary Health Care trusts to develop health promotion initiatives for gay men whilst providing a platform for the dubious advertising of cancer causing brands of poppers. Is this a case of double standards or ethical bad practice? By accepting such advertising and placing it directly next to adverts for sexual services the Lesbian and Gay Foundation and Manchester NHS are directly advocating the use of poppers within the context of risky sex.

The Hard Sell?

An additional risk to ones health is also heightened through the co-use of poppers with drugs such as Viagra (stiffeners!). As both drugs cause the lowering of blood pressure, using them both together, particularly if someone already has a heart condition has proven fatal. One inevitable side effect of using poppers which occurs almost immediately after the rush wears off is the inability to maintain an erection, pretty bad news when you’re having a shag – and where you’re likely to find most people using poppers! To counteract this awkward side affect many guys are taking both without realising, or caring about the risks.

If that wasn’t worrying enough many saunas and mail order services that have made an undisclosed fortune through the sale of poppers over the years are also beginning to cash in on the market for prescription free alternatives to Viagra, and despite the lack of brand name or patent many of these readily available stiffeners now being peddled to the gay market through gay magazines and sex shops. One major sauna chain even has vending machines in the changing rooms selling packets for less than £10 right next to the poppers. Most of these hard-on inducing products contain a substance described as “herbal viagra” or “kamagra” with virtual the same effects as the real over-the-counter stuff and of course, the same risks. Those profiting from the sale of these dangerous drugs are well aware of the risks but will no doubt continue to sell them and earn a quick buck for as long as they can get away with it.

Popular gay club night glamourising imagery of a bottle of poppers to promote a club night on the same weekend the most popular brands became illegal

Popular gay club night glamorising imagery of a bottle of poppers to promote a club night on the same weekend the most popular brands became illegal. It's no wonder poppers are popular on the gay scene when clubbers and drinkers are bombarded with their normality.

Gay Gold Rush?

Combined with the rush, the desired psychological factor of decreased inhibitions, increased sexual libido and the placing of poppers for sale in venues where high risk behaviour is already prevalent such as clubs and saunas the question must once again be asked… Why are our bars, clubs, magazines, saunas, dating websites and sex shops found on gay scene so eager to continue promoting these dangerous substances despite the overwhelmingly strong evidence suggesting they are having a devastating effect on the gay community and the state of gay and bisexual men’s health?

The answer is pretty obvious, it’s all about the money, lots of it. The average bottle of poppers costs more than a pint of beer, more than a packet of cigarettes and certainly more than enough ecstasy pills to keep you dancing all weekend. Once opened the shelf life deteriorates and within a couple of weeks your once fragrant “room odoriser” begins to smell like the bottom of a footballers boot, and although there is still a small “rush” to be had from each sniff of your now binnable bottle of toxic chemicals, the headache, combined with the unbearable stench you’ll endure in pursuit of one last rush of euphoria just isn’t worth it. Keer-ching! Off you pop, down to the village for a new bottle. The profit margins are massive.

It’s time to ditch poppers once and for all.

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