27 March 2023

No laughing matter: banning nitrous oxide is as pointless as it is illiberal


The Government announced over the weekend that nitrous oxide would be banned. This is long overdue, of course; how long did we really expect the Government to allow people to use such a dangerous substance with such a menacing chemical symbol?

Except, of course, we are talking about laughing gas: a mild, short-acting stimulant routinely given to pregnant women by the NHS. 

Why on earth are ministers trying to ban it then?

It all stems from a moral panic and a desire to be seen as tough on crime and anti-social behaviour, coupled with anecdotal evidence about an uptick in A&E visits and the trebling of 999 calls related to laughing gas inhalation. Campaigners have also pointed to two patients who have had to have drains put in their brains to save their eyesight after using the substance. Of course, that is cause for concern, but a few incidents don’t amount to a compelling case for outright prohibition.

Indeed, laughing gas was associated with six deaths in 2021 and a total of 62 since 2001. Each of those deaths is a tragedy, without doubt. But as the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs argued just last month, prohibition is a totally disproportionate response. Especially so when you consider how many fewer deaths are associated with laughing gas than alcohol (9,641 in 2021) or even paracetamol (277 in 2021) – or, for that matter, day-to-day activities like driving a car (1,608 in 2021). Nor is it even clear that the reported deaths are directly due to laughing gas, or to other substances or activity engaged in at the same time.

Some may argue that saving those lives is worth the extra effort, but that ignores the significant costs to prohibition. Police are already overstretched and failing to perform core tasks like preventing theft and prosecuting rape cases. Is sending them after groups of kids with balloons and whipped cream canisters really the best use of scarce resources?

Nor does history suggest prohibition is likely to be a success. Just look at drugs, where addicts have been criminalised instead of treating and the trade is dominated by violent criminal gangs. Prohibition has done little to tame the use of other recreational drugs, so why should laughing gas be any different?

Equally important is the moral case against prohibition. In a free and open society, individuals should be able to do as they wish with their own bodies so long as it does not infringe on anybody else’s right to do the same. Inhaling laughing gas is a victimless crime, no matter what the panic-merchants and curtain twitchers might have you believe. Victimising people with threats of arrest, fines, and imprisonment for an act which has no direct adverse impact on anyone else is an affront to our liberties.

In reality, plans to ban laughing gas are just another exhibition of excessive ‘safetyism’ – the belief that all risks, however minor, however personal, must be policed by the state. Historically, we live in one of the safest countries at one of the safest times in human history. Naturally, that leads people to dilute the definition of safety in their heads, replacing the desire to mitigate real risks with paranoia about minor dangers.

There is nothing benign or innocent about excessive safetyism in our society: it leads to tangible bad outcomes like those which accompany drug prohibition, while undermining individuals’ ability to live free lives and evaluate their own risks.

Sadly, this government is utterly beholden to the voices which urge us to panic about every potential danger lurking round the corner, as evidenced by their approach to regulating everything from food and drugs, to financial markets and the internet. While I’m sure the Government truly believes it is doing good through prohibition, they would do well to remember C.S. Lewis’ wise words:

‘Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.’

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Harrison Griffiths is Communications Officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.