By BERNIE BECKER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - The dangers and allure of marijuana, alcohol and other illegal drugs are well covered in TV commercials and school programs, but it's been a different story when it comes to inhalant abuse.
Until now, that is.
The Maryland education and health departments Tuesday kicked off the Maryland Inhalant Abuse Prevention Program, which will educate parents and teachers about the warning signs and dangers of what is popularly known as "huffing." It is the first state to take the lead in providing information on the deadly problem.
The Partnership for a Drug Free America reported in 2005 that 22 percent of eighth-graders had used common household items like cooking spray or air freshener at least once for a quick high. But most parents and teachers don't know about the dangers of inhalants, which "can be deadly the very first time," said Christopher Cathcart, secretary of the board of directors for the Alliance for Consumer Education, a health advocacy foundation.
The new Maryland program will supply inhalant abuse prevention kits—which include tips about what products can be abused and how to intervene if inhalent abuse is suspected—to individual school districts around the state.
Similar programs have been enacted on local levels around the country, but Maryland is the first to make a statewide effort, said Colleen Creighton, executive director of the Alliance for Consumer Education.
Creighton, whose organization helped develop the Maryland program, said she expects the kits to be available at back-to-school nights and at community sessions on inhalant abuse. Each school district is expected to use the kits in its own way, she added.
The program was developed after the General Assembly earlier this year passed "Mackenzie's Law," which required the state to create an inhalant education program. The bill is named for the daughter of Pamela Powers, an aide to Delegate Tawanna Gaines, the bill's main sponsor.
Gaines, a Prince George's Democrat, said she was unaware of the dangers of inhalants until Mackenzie's death of inhalant abuse at 15. "And if I didn't know about it, I knew other parents didn't either," Gaines said at the news conference announcing the program's launch.
It is too early to know how effective the kits will be, some advocates said. Meanwhile, it is still uncertain how prevalent inhalant abuse is in Maryland.
The 2004 Maryland Adolescent Survey, conducted by the state Education department, found a much lower rate of inhalant use than national figures—only 6.4 percent of Maryland eighth-graders reported ever using inhalants.
Creighton said inhalant abuse often is underreported because younger adolescents don't always understand what they're being asked.
Phillip Zuber said "it's difficult to know" whether his son Justin, who was 16 when he died from inhalant use, could have been saved by more information about inhalants. But Zuber thinks if Justin was "given the opportunity to reflect" about the dangers, he might not have used inhalants.
Statements like that show the potential of this program, said state Superintendent Nancy Grasmick.
If this program saves just one child, Grasmick said, it would be worth it.