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Highs and lows

Both prospective legislation and new research suggesting that poppers might affect eye sight places poppers, a currently legal drug, in dubious territory

10 Mar 2016 by John White

Why should optics care about the ban on ‘poppers’? This debate has arisen following the proposal by the government of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which attempts to tackle concerns about the health risks posed by so-called ‘legal highs’ – substances that have similar effects to illegal drugs like cocaine or cannabis.

This week, the International Narcotics Control Board, which is the United Nations’ body that oversees global drug treaties, hinted at its support for tackling the problem. It warned that these highs present a “growing threat” as the number of substances "continued to emerge in increasingly high numbers over the past year."

The debate surrounding ‘poppers’ – an alkyl nitrite which is inhaled by the user – has in and of itself had a slightly psychoactive quality, with the unusual spectacle of Conservative MP and chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, Crispin Blunt, surprising fellow MPs with a candid statement to the House: "I use poppers, I out myself as a popper user, and would be directly affected by this legislation. I’m astonished to find it’s proposing to be banned.”

The J S Mill school of thought would, I suspect, be minded to agree with Mr Blunt, on the basis that ‘the actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals.’ However, a recent paper has served to reflect there may not in fact be harmless, with potential risks to eye health.

Writing in the BMJ Case Reports, co-author and St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust senior house officer, Dr Joshua Luis, describes the case of a man who suffered sudden, irreversible central loss of vision after taking poppers for the first time.

Speaking to OT’s Olivia Wannan, the researcher explained that spectral domain optical coherence tomography showed the inner and outer sections of the fovea were disrupted. Treatment led to improvement in the photoreceptor layer, but the patient’s best corrected visual acuity only “improved marginally,” Dr Luis explained.

More research is needed in this space, but as the AOP’s professional adviser, Geoff Roberson concludes, there is “increasing evidence” that poppers pose a risk to eye health, and the sector is right to highlight its concerns.

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