Skip to content

Tackling volatile substance abuse in Scotland: A training course for the social care workforce

VSA background

Prevalence of use

The recently published review of evidence relating to VSA in Scotland1 points out that due to the hidden nature of VSA, it is difficult to provide an accurate estimate of VSA prevalence. This is reflected in the lack of available data. It states that the main European survey that monitors solvent abuse, School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD),2 shows that the UK prevalence for lifetime use of inhalants is 12%, slightly higher than the average for Europe (10%).

Another recent report, Freedom’s Orphans, Raising Youth in a Changing World, published by the IPPR suggests that the abuse of glue and solvents amongst 11 to 15 year olds has increased sevenfold from one percent (28,000 children) to seven percent (168,000) over the last seven years.

A number of studies have looked at the prevalence of use of volatile substances amongst young people, either within their lifetime or a recent defined period. Figures for reported lifetime use show significant differences between different studies. These differences probably result from differences in the make up of the samples and the format of the questions. The Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey (SALSUS) survey, previously undertaken by Edinburgh University’s Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit (CAHRU), is in its third sweep, with previous surveys having been carried out in 2002 and 2004. The survey, which is commissioned by the Scottish Government, collects data from secondary school students aged 13 and 15 on smoking, drinking and drug use. Substance use is considered in the wider context of other lifestyle, health and social factors.

Table 1 shows that, in 2004, 2% of 13 year olds and 4% of 15 year olds reported use of gas, glue or other solvents in the last year (compared to 10% and 28% for cannabis, and 3% and 10% for stimulants including cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines). This reduced to 1% in both age groups for use in the last month (compared to 6% and 19% for cannabis and 2% and 4% for stimulants including cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines).

Table 1
Drug Use 13 Year Olds 15 Year Olds
Use of gas, glue or other solvents in the last year 2% 4%
Use of cannabis in the last year 10% 28%
Use of stimulants, including cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines 3% 10%

Analysis of survey results from the previous sweeps (Table 2) shows that, for older students, there was a decrease in having been offered gas, glue and other solvents, from 24% in 2000 to 14% in 2002 and 13% in 2004. This compares favourably to other drugs. For example, in 2000, 28% of students reported having been offered cannabis, compared to 26% in 2002 and 26% in 2004. In 2000, 16% of respondents said that they had been offered stimulants compared to 11% in 2002 and 11% again in 2004.

Table 2
Drugs Offered 2000 2002 2004
Offered gas, glue and other solvents 24% 14% 13%
Offered cannabis 28% 26% 26%
Offered stimulants 16% 11% 11%

In 2003, a Justice Department buy in to the MORI Scotland omnibus survey — State of the Nation — provided data regarding use of solvents and other drugs among children and young adults. Face-to-face interviews with 972 17-25 year olds, who also completed self-completion surveys, revealed that 11% of respondents had, at some time in their lives, tried glues, gas or aerosols to sniff or inhale. Further, 2% said that they had been offered these substances in the previous 12 months and 1% said that they had been offered them in the previous month. As part of the Scottish Government 2006 Review, a number of local authorities were contacted to explore if information was held locally about VSA across Scotland. In most cases, the only data available is that reported to the ISD Scottish Drug Misuse Database (SDMD). This national database provides drug use prevalence information based on recorded attendance by problem drug users at treatment services across Scotland (the Scottish Drugs Misuse Information Strategy Team (DMIST) collect, maintain and disseminate data from drug treatment agencies across Scotland. This data is held in the SDMD and includes data relating to solvent abuse referrals by Local Authority and health board area).

The Scottish Drug Misuse Statistics 2005 publication (which reports on National Statistics data from the SDMD, General Acute Hospital Inpatient Statistics and Prescriptions Relating to Drug Misuse, for the year ending 31st March 2005) shows that:

In relation to general acute inpatient discharges with a diagnosis of drug misuse, the report shows that:

Of all those admitted, and diagnosed as using volatile solvents, all were discharged within one week. The report also shows that the number of inpatient discharges for VSA in 2004/05 (n=6) was at its lowest in the last 5 year period with previous numbers being 15, 26, 20 and 25 for 2000/01. It is worth noting, again, that the numbers reported here are low and any generalisation of these findings, based on such small sample sizes, should be made with caution.


  1. Skellington Orr, K. & Shewan, D. (2006) Review of Evidence Relating to Volatile Substance Abuse in Scotland Scottish Government Substance Misuse Research Programme.
  2. ESPAD (2002) A European Perspective Summary of VSA Evidence within the ESPAD Database.