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Top End faces petrol-sniffing epidemic

Extract from Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC Online, on 15 October 2004

A Northern Territory parliamentary report has warned that within a decade, the Territory will be paying almost $10 million a year to care for brain-damaged petrol sniffers in central Australia.

The report talks of children as young as five sniffing petrol and acknowledges increasing numbers of Aboriginal youths are being driven to inhalants by boredom, poverty and parental neglect.

The report says there are currently 15 former sniffers in full-time institutional care in central Australia.

It predicts that figure will increase to 60 within a decade, at a cost of $160,000 per person per year.

The report has also called for renewed efforts to develop alternative fuel sources in a bid to reduce petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities.

The Substance Abuse Committee cites the success of products such as Avgas in reducing sniffing in some communities.

The report says normal petrol contains about 20 per cent toluene, the active substance which makes sniffers high.

However it says Avgas contains only 0.1 per cent toluene, making it chemically impossible to use as an intoxicant.

The report acknowledges some communities have successfully reduced sniffing by limiting the availability of petrol.

But it calls for a more regional approach and acknowledges the existence of a black market in petrol.

The committee recommends the Territory and Federal Governments work with industry to encourage further research into alternative fuels.

The report goes on to describe a core group of about 360 chronic sniffers.

It reveals the habit has flourished in communities ripped apart by poverty, hunger and boredom.

But the committee's chair believes petrol sniffing can be wiped out.

Jane Aagaard told the chamber of witnessing a teenage mother sniffing petrol while breastfeeding her baby.

She describes the brain damage a chronic sniffer can expect: "Totally disabled, not able to eat or speak or move very well is a terrible prospect."

But she says early intervention, involving teams of professionals who fly into remote communities when there is a sniffing outbreak can stamp out the practice.

Opposition health spokeswoman Jodeen Carney says prevention programs alone are not working.

"Sniffers are simply moving from one community to another," she said.

"They're not stopping, the cause of it has not been stopped."

Ms Carney has called for urgent funding increases for rehabilitation and prevention, but she says sniffing must also be made a crime.

The report also recommends new police powers to take sniffers into protective custody and divert them into rehabilitation.

The CLP Opposition has issued a dissenting report calling for sniffing to be made an arrestable offence.

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