The FDA Says Poppers Can Kill You. Will Anyone Actually Listen?
The party police have come for poppers. Late in June, the FDA issued an advisory against buying or consuming the inhalants, which, for the uninitiated, are fast-acting, fast-fading stimulants most widely used in gay club culture as a drug for partying and/or sex.
The FDA warned people to stop use immediately and throw away any bottles that might be lying around, as there is a potential for serious health risk, including death.
FDA is advising consumers not to purchase or use nitrite “poppers” which can result in serious adverse health effects, including death. These products are marketed as nail polish removers but are being ingested or inhaled for recreational use. https://t.co/5Qkd0wleuc pic.twitter.com/9PgY3KTA02— U.S. FDA (@US_FDA) June 24, 2021
Alkyl nitrites, also known as poppers, are liquids that, when inhaled, induce a brief sense of euphoria or arousal. A quick sniff can smack you with a wave of heat and a rush to the head. The compound also relaxes the smooth muscles of your anus, which can make sex more comfortable if you're bottoming.
Sold online and in sex shops, the colorful little bottles boast names that range from the seemingly harmless (Super Rush, Jungle Juice, Man Scent) to the assumedly unhinged (Everest Brutal, Premium Iron Horse, Redrum). They're sometimes marketed as nail polish remover or leather cleaner, and some brands resemble popular energy shots.
As a club drug, poppers have enjoyed relatively steady popularity in the LGBTQ scene since the 1970s. Today, there are even subscription boxes for the popper connoisseur.
Why poppers can kill
The high of poppers comes from the dilation of blood vessels, which lowers blood pressure and triggers a head rush. And although this feels pleasant, research shows it can lead to blood abnormalities and allergic reactions. Combining poppers with other drugs that might be common in the bedroom, like those for erectile dysfunction, can lower blood pressure to dangerous levels.
"Poppers, just like anything in the world, can be bad for you if quantities and usage are exaggerated," said self-proclaimed avid poppers user Chad, who enjoys them most often during sex. "I really don't believe the FDA providing this sort of advisory will affect consumer decisions when wanting to buy poppers. People will continue to use them recreationally [even] knowing the risks."
Chad, who is in his mid-20s, lives in London, where poppers narrowly escaped a ban in 2016 after British Parliament member Crispin Blunt famously identified himself as a poppers user to defend the drug's accessibility. Poppers have since occupied a legal gray area in the U.K. Elsewhere, in countries like Australia and Canada, poppers have been completely banned.
Despite the warnings that poppers can be dangerous, and sometimes kill, the sex and party drug remains available for purchase and many users remain unfazed.
While some, like Chad, might throw caution to the wind, others were hesitant well before the FDA's warning. Kurt*, a 28-year-old living in St. Louis, was once a casual poppers user both on the dance floor and in the bedroom. But after coming across information on potential long-term damage to vision and hearing, he lost interest.
"Maybe it's rare, but I don't like it enough to risk those things," he said.
While studies linking poppers to vision loss do exist, research isn't strong. More concerning are other health risks the inhalants have been linked to. The FDA reported an increase in deaths and hospitalizations related to severe headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, increase in body temperature, extreme drops in blood pressure, brain death and blood disorders.
Rachel Brummert, a consumer representative with the FDA, feels the deceptive packaging of poppers opens the door to abuse. She noted that all adverse-event reports related to poppers made to the FDA are voluntary, so it's safe to assume that more go unreported. "With the stigma of it and the fact that things are underreported all the time anyway, I think there are way more cases than are being reported," Brummert said. "And that's very concerning to me."
Despite these warnings, the sex and party drug remains available for purchase. And many users remain unfazed, as the power of the popper is strong and any opportunity to release inhibitions is a welcome one.
"I have to say, for a second, I was like, now I have to stop doing them," said Nick, a 27-year-old living in Brooklyn. "But the FDA has never stopped me before, so if they float by my nose, I'm still sniffing 'em."
*Name changed by request.