Health authorities have moved to further restrict the sale of poppers in a move welcomed by ophthalmologists but met with opposition from gay activists.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration has proposed to change the scheduling of alkyl nitrites to make it so products including the group of chemicals - such as amyl nitrite - could be sold only as machine lubricants.
This would effectively further restrict the sale of what are commonly known as poppers: inhalants recreationally used to relax muscles in the body for clubbing or sex.
The reasoning, according to the TGA, is that ophthalmologists had told the authority of an increase in patients with retinal damage caused by the recreational use of particularly amyl nitrite.
Retinal disease specialist Alex Hunyor said it was difficult to know how common alkyl nitrite-related maculopathies were, noting little data was kept on how many people used poppers, but said related issues had been reported in increasing numbers.
Few people had their vision return to normal once damaged, he said. He added that making amyl harder to access made sense.
“There are reports of people having improvement [in their vision] but there’s nothing that we can give them to make it get better," Dr Hunyor said. “There is a public health concern about people doing something that can harm themselves."
But Sydney-based gay activist Steven Spencer argued community education would be more effective in preventing poppers-related harm.
Mr Spencer has an amyl nitrite tattoo on his chest in homage to his community.
"With all of this overwhelming evidence saying that poppers generally aren’t harmful and that they actually provide a very safe avenue particularly for gay men to explore themselves, explore their sex, explore their community, the only conclusion you can really come down to is that it’s moralising and perhaps even homophobic," he said.
"Let us have this one little relief from that. It’s a few seconds of joy and enjoyment. It gives us an ability to open up and enjoy ourselves and each other."
Currently, it is illegal to sell, supply or inhale products containing amyl, iso-amyl, alkyl, butyl and octyl nitrites unless prescribed by a doctor, according to academic Julaine Allan.
"However, poppers can be bought online or in sex shops in small bottles labelled as room deodoriser, polish remover or video head cleaner," she wrote for The Conversation in 2016. Poppers are also widely available online.
They are not addictive but can cause death if swallowed. The liquid can burn the skin on contact and frequent use cause irritation of the nose and throat and chemical burns, including a rash around the nose and mouth, according to Dr Allan.
The latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey found 1 per cent of Australians had used in inhalant in 2016. The figure included people who sniffed petrol, paint and glue. The same Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report found the use of inhalants had steadily increased since 2001.
A 2016 push to ban poppers in the UK was met with fierce opposition and inspired Conservative MP Crispin Blunt to out himself as a user of alkyl nitrites.
That parliament eventually voted to ban substances creating a psychoactive effect, excluding food, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine, but it was later found alkyl nitrites were not covered by the legislation.
Australia's TGA will publish its decision in September.
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