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 Poppers.

"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 drug."

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 poppers.

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". *