POPPERS - THE END OF AN ERA
By John Lauritsen
New York Native 13 March 1989
Poppers (nitrite inhalants) are now a "banned hazardous
product" in the United States. As of February 15, 1989 it
is illegal to manufacture, distribute, import or sell any
isobutyl nitrite substance or any consumer product "used for
inhaling or otherwise introduced into the body for euphoric
or physical effects". The ban is part of the Drug Omnibus
Act of 1988, which was signed into law last November by
President Reagan. The main sponsors of the nitrite
inhalants provision were Representatives Mel Levine and
Henry Waxman (Democrats- California). Both are strong
supporters of gay rights.
The ban was hailed by Hank Wilson of San Francisco, a
gay activist who in 1981 founded the Committee to Monitor
"It is long overdue", said Wilson. "Up to the point of
the ban we still had businesses in the gay community that
were promoting and selling poppers. There were gay
publications, like Update in San Diego, carrying large
popper ads, as though there were no hazards to using the
Wilson continued: "New people are continually coming
into the gay community. Young people are coming out. The
last thing we ought to do is to introduce these newcomers to
products that will be harmful to their immune systems, while
we're in the midst of this epidemic."
"There was a business in San Francisco", said Wilson,
"which was very popular, and which did some tremendous work
in fund raising for AIDS. The business also sold poppers.
Now what does that do? It conveys the message that poppers
are safe and respectable."
With regard to the hazards of poppers and their
effects on the immune system, Wilson emphasized that the
definitive research remains to be done. This is one of many
areas of research that have been ignored or neglected by the
government. However, a great many studies have already been
done by top-notch independent researchers. These studies
all point in the same direction: poppers are bad for the
health and bad for the immune system.
It would be wrong, according to Wilson, to imagine that
the ban on poppers reflected a right-wing agenda. On the
contrary, the initiative for regulating poppers has come
from the gay community itself. West Hollywood, the gayest
city in the world, took the lead in banning poppers. In San
Francisco in 1983, a group of gay doctors, the Bar Area
Physicians for Human Rights, together with Wilson's
Committee, lobbied for regulation of poppers.
Almost all gay men, but few other people, know what
poppers are: little bottles containing a liquid mixture of
isobutyl nitrite and other chemicals. When inhaled just
before orgasm, poppers seem to enhance and prolong the
sensation. Poppers facilitate anal intercourse by relaxing
the muscles in the rectum and deadening the sense of pain.
The original poppers were little glass ampules enclosed
in mesh, which were "popped" under the nose and inhaled.
They contained pharmaceutical amyl nitrite, and were
intended for emergency relief of angina pectoris (heart
pain). Amyl nitrite was a controlled substance until 1960,
when the prescription requirement was eliminated by the Food
and Drug Administration (FDA). From 1961 to 1969, a few gay
men began using amyl nitrite as a "recreational" drug. The
prescription requirement was reinstated by the FDA in 1969.
In 1970, a new industry stepped into the breach,
marketing commer cial brands of butyl and isobutyl nitrite.
By 1974 the poppers craze was in full swing, and by 1977
poppers were in "every corner of gay life".
At its peak, the poppers industry was the biggest
money-maker in the gay business world, grossing upwards of
$50 million per year. Gay publications were delighted with
the revenues they received from running full-page, four-
color ads for the various brands of poppers. In a 1983
letter to the Advocate, poppers manufacturer Joseph F.
Miller, President of Great Lakes Products, Inc., boasted he
was the "largest advertiser in the Gay press".
For gay men who came out in the 70s, poppers appeared
to be as much a part of the gay clone lifestyle as mustaches
or flannel shirts. The brilliant red and yellow label of one
brand, Rush, was so distinctive that a successful gay
political candidate in San Francisco used the color scheme
on his campaign posters.
Accessories were marketed: for leather queans, there
were little metal inhalers on leather thongs. One magazine
had a comic strip entitled "Poppers" -- its hero, Billy, was
a child-like but sexy blond who loved sex and poppers.
In 1981 Hank Wilson noticed that many of his popper-
using friends were developing swollen lymph nodes. After
reading medical literature on the nitrite inhalants, which
was extensive even then, he founded the Committee to Monitor
the Cumulative Effects of Poppers. I began collaborating
with Wilson in 1983, and in 1986 we published a book
together (Death Rush: Poppers & AIDS, Pagan Press).
A summary of the medical case against poppers: Poppers
are immunosuppressive. They cause anemia, lung damage,
serious skin burns, and death or brain damage from
cardiovascular collapse or stroke. Poppers cause genes to
mutate and have the potential to cause cancer by producing
deadly N-nitroso compounds. Poppers have been used
successfully to commit suicide (by drinking) and murder
(victim gagged with sock soaked with poppers). There are
strong epidemiological links between the use of poppers and
the development of AIDS, and especially Kaposi's sarcoma
(KS). A six-fold decrease in the incidence of KS over the
past five years parallels a sharp decline in the use of
Hank Wilson began in 1981 to send out packets of
medical reports to the gay press, which generally chose to
ignore them. The outstanding exception was the New York
Native, which in the issue of December 21, 1981 - January 3,
1982 ran an article by Lawrence Mass, M.D., entitled "Do
Poppers Cause Cancer?". In the November 19 - December 2,
1984 Native Charles Ortleb wrote an article, "Poppers May Be
Co-Factor in Development Of KS In AIDS Cases", with an
accompanying editorial, "Poppers Redux", which called upon
"club owners to discourage the use of poppers on dance
floors". (For this editorial the Native was sharply
attacked by the late Nathan Fain, the "health critic" of the
Advocate.) The August 12-25, 1985 Native ran my article,
"Poppers and AIDS: The Scientific Overview".
For nearly two decades the poppers industry eluded
regulation by labelling their commodity a "room odorizer".
The FDA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and
various state health departments all looked the other way.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) colluded with the
poppers industry in 1983 by issuing a report which falsely
claimed that a mouse study had exonerated poppers from being
"immunotoxic". (Six other mouse studies, performed by
independent researchers, demonstrated that poppers
definitely are immunosuppresive.) At the height of its
power, the poppers industry had at its disposal outwardly
respectable academics, physicians, "gay leaders", state
representatives, and various government officials, all ready
to testify or act in the interests of their patron.
All that is over now. No doubt some gay men will be
unable to break the habit, and will continue to consume
black market poppers.
But no longer can poppers be presented as harmless
"room odorizers", or as an accepted part of the gay male
lifestyle. The nitrite inhalants are, for very good
reasons, a "banned hazardous product". *