The number of people sniffing petrol in Indigenous communities has dropped sharply following the introduction of special low-aromatic fuel that does not get users high, according to new research.
The study found the number of sniffers in 41 communities fell by almost 30 percent between 2011 and 2014.
In 17 of those communities, older data from 2005 showed an even more dramatic decline of 88 percent.
Professor Peter d’Abbs, the lead researcher at the Menzies School of Health Research, told NITV News it was “pretty clear” the introduction of the special fuel had been the “most significant factor” in the decline.
Professor d’Abbs said the trend was promising, but warned against complacency.
“One of the dangers, now that petrol sniffing has dropped away in a lot of areas, is people saying, ‘well, we don’t need to worry anymore’,” he said.
“That would be a huge mistake. Petrol sniffing could very easily come back.”
Inhaling petrol fumes gives the sniffer a kind of euphoric high, with feelings of relaxation and numbness.
It also causes serious, often irreversible brain damage, with many sniffers ending up confined to wheelchairs or unable to talk properly. In the worst cases, petrol sniffing can be fatal. There are psychological impacts too, with 25 percent of petrol sniffing-related deaths in Central Australia between 1998 and 2003 the result of suicide.
Low-aromatic unleaded fuel (LAF) first became available in 2005, and has become more widely adopted in the communities monitored over the years of the study.
Getting access to regular, sniffable unleaded petrol is easier in larger towns with more petrol stations, the researchers said. The majority of the 41 communities in the study were remote.
The federal government does now have the authority to force a transition to LAF – a power Indigenous Affairs minister Nigel Scullion has recently employed.
“I have banned the supply and sale of regular unleaded fuel on Palm Island, and in areas around Katherine and Tennant Creek,” the minister said in a media release.
“I am determined to stop access to regular unleaded fuel where we have the evidence that it is still hurting people. I am confident this strategy will continue to make a difference and save more lives.”
Professor d’Abbs said the success of LAF needed to be followed up with programs that created opportunities for young people.
“People will simply turn to another drug if you don’t change the things that led to them taking that drug in the first place,” he said.
Sniffing remains most popular with young men.
The two studies both showed three in four people sniffing petrol were male, and just over half were aged in the 15-24 age bracket.
There was a slight increase in the number of very young children sniffing petrol, from four children aged 5 - 9 in the earlier study to eight in the later. At such small numbers, the researchers said this was most likely a temporary fluctuation, not evidence for a trend, but said ongoing monitoring was warranted.