NDARC Technical Report No. 284 (2007)


Little research has been conducted into inhalant user perceptions of their own motivations for use and cessation of inhalants. This study was conducted to inform interventions and identify appropriate prevention messages for volatile substance users. It aimed to identify and describe the motivations for inhalant use and cessation; patterns of use and perceptions of harms amongst inhalant users.

Due to the lack of research that has been conducted on this issue, qualitative methods are used to identify and describe factors that have previously been undocumented or unknown. Ten semi-structured interviews were conducted with young people or adults over the aged of 16 years, who had previously used inhalants in the context of polydrug use, but had not used an inhalant in the last 4 months. A thematic analysis was conducted on the transcript data and notes.

All participants reported polydrug use. Eight were current users of illicit drugs and 2 reported that they were not currently using illicit drugs. The average age of initiation of inhalant use was 13 years (ranging between 5 and 21 years). Nine of the ten participants reported using more than one inhalant. Five of these participants reported using at least one inhalant experimentally (less than 5 times), in addition to regular use of other inhalants.

Four types of inhalant use that were reported: aborted experiments; temporary use and cessation; episodic use; and everyday use. Motivations for initial use that were reported included curiosity, boredom, complying to friends’ wishes to experiment, and substituting for other drugs that were not available. Reported motivations for ongoing use included fun, enhanced enjoyment of the high because inhalants are not illegal, cheapness and accessibility, substitution for drugs of preference, enhancing the ‘high’ of other drugs, boredom, social motivations and a desire to stay intoxicated.

This research also identified specific types of cessation of use that occurred within this group of polydrug users: final cessation of one inhalant; circumstantial cessation of the use of one inhalant; and cessation of regular use of all inhalants and other drugs.

Participants reported a range of factors contributed to their desire or decision to stop use of an inhalant. Deterrents to use included unpleasant aspects of use, dislike of acute experiences of use, such as headaches, nausea and vomiting, having no high or a ‘bad high’, perceived stigma, and beliefs about harms associated with use. Bad experiences, for example, inhalant-related accidents, and relationships with significant others also contributed to cessation.

Participants reported that they stopped using inhalants because drugs that they preferred were socially or physically available. Reasons for their preference for other drugs include having a dislike for the immediate effects of inhalants compared to other drugs, for example, nausea; receiving a ‘better high’ from other drugs which is stronger and longer lasting, or in the case of injecting drugs ‘instantaneous’; and having a preference for drugs that acted as ‘uppers’ rather than as a depressant. A change in the access to preferred drugs or to social patterns of drug use occurred when meeting someone who provided access to cannabis; a move away from a country town to another country town or to the city. Participants reported that in urban centres, drugs were cheaper and there was a wider range of illicit substances were available.

The findings of this study provide new information about the types of use and cessation of inhalant users amongst polydrug users, and motivations or deterrents to use that are specific to inhalant use. Reported motivations for the initial or ongoing use of a particular inhalant were similar to those reported for other drugs. However, some motivations appeared to be specific to the inhalant products. These included the products’ low cost and accessibility, enhanced enjoyment because inhalants are not illegal, and substitution for drugs of preference.

Our findings suggest that multiple factors (e.g., unpleasant aspects of use or health beliefs about use) contribute to a desire to stop, or a preference for other drugs. However, several factors appeared to contribute directly to the final cessation of one inhalant, or all inhalants and/or other drugs. In the stories of inhalant users who participated in this research, final cessation appeared to be linked to a health scare which highlighted the users’ own mortality, e.g., hospitalisation due to an overdose from another drug or for lung-related health problems. Termination of experimental use appeared to be due to an event in which the negative aspects of use (for example, a very bad headache) outweighed the perceived benefits, or when the substance does not induce the expected feelings of intoxication.

The results also provided insights into the following concepts regarding inhalants in the literature: such as treating inhalants as a one ‘class’ of drugs; the perception of inhalants as ‘gutter drugs’; episodic patterns of inhalant use; sequence of initiation in drugs; reasons for inhalant cessation; motivations and deterrents for use; and patterns of use in rural and urban areas.

Given the small sample size, the research cannot be expected to capture the full range of factors (motivations and deterrents for inhalant use, and patterns of use) that exist within this group. The study encountered major difficulties in recruitment, particularly with young people who were not polydrug users. The recruitment issues encountered in this study need to be considered when conducting future research with inhalant users.

Citation: Finney-Lamb, C., Dillon, P. & Copeland, J. (2007) Investigating reasons for the cessation of volatile substances: A qualitative study. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.


Date Commenced
01 Jun 2007
Resource Type
Technical Reports