Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sniffing a Failure

By Simon Grose

Petrol sniffing in remote communities could best be combatted by giving young indigenous people a positive way to get out of it.

Substance abuse is a motif of our time. Elite male swimmers taking sleeping pills to get out of it together and AFL players taking Alzheimer’s medications to get up together on game day are recent additions to the trend. The use of steroids, ephedrine, testosterone and other stimulants go back a lot further.

The substances being abused are typically legal for medical or other applications. Their use gains headlines, but abuse of another legal substance is rarely reported.

Sniffing petrol is bad for you. It delivers an immediate high and hallucinatory buzz, but over time can cause chronic health issues and permanent brain damage. For young indigenous people in remote communities it has become a peer group response to their desolate existence.

In 2005, under then-Health Minister Tony Abbott, the government responded by mandating the use of low aromatic fuel in selected outback areas. About 25% of regular unleaded fuel is aromatics like toluene and xylenes; in low aromatic fuel they make up about 5%. It is currently sold by around 120 outback servos, and the government subsidises the production to the tune of 33¢ per litre.

This is set to expand following the passage earlier this year of the Low Aromatic Fuel Act, which makes it an offence to supply regular unleaded fuel in designated areas, a move to overcome resistance from some fuel suppliers, and gives the government power to extend the mandate to other outback areas.

In April, Minister Jenny Macklin released a consultant’s report entitled ‘Whole of Strategy Evaluation of the Petrol Sniffing Strategy’. Strangely, despite its title, it was not required to assess the current level of sniffing.

It cites a 2008 study which compared sniffing rates before and after the introduction of low aromatic fuel as “the primary source for assessing longer-term impacts of the PSS,” and found “a decrease of 70% (431) in the number of people sniffing across all communities in the study”.

Implementing the new law may deliver similar results. Yet there is a 5-year data gap. In that time it is likely that surreptitious supply of regular fuel has grown and other substances have been adopted. The consultant’s report acknowledges that by recommending the strategy be “broadened to include other volatiles”.

A fuller picture will be available next year when a study of sniffing in 40 remote communities is due to report. If, like the 2008 study, it finds that sniffers are still just numbered in their hundreds, it will be plain that the millions of dollars spent on the low aromatic fuel campaign could be much better spent on providing scholarships for young indigenous people to attend school away from their remote homelands, where sniffing has sadly become part of their culture.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (