A Rebuttal of "THE POPPERS STORY The Rise and Fall of ‘The Gay Drug' By Ian Young”

The Poppers Story -- the History of Nitrite Odorants

“Have you brains?” asked the Scarecrow.“ I suppose so. I’ve never looked to see, ”replied the Lion.
--- The Scarecrow and the Lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Author Ian Young has made some interesting points in his article The Poppers Story, The Rise and Fall of ‘The Gay Drug', but do these points provide the reader with the “complete story” of poppers as the author claims? Are the claims he makes valid? Are the facts he quotes substantiated? Or is the article more like a makeshift saloon in an old Hollywood western, all front but no substance to hold it up? All good questions, but how do we get at the truth?

Well, let’s start with a brief overview of the article itself. There are a few important questions to consider. Who is the author and is he well versed in the subject he is writing about? Is the article original or has it been published before? An Internet search on Ian Young brings up nothing of significance. But interestingly, an article search reveals that Young’s article is not unique. In fact, it is essentially identical to one written by Stan Getchell under a different title. Getchell’s article "THE COMPLETE POPPERS STORY The History of What Some Once Called 'The Gay Drug' By Stan Getchell”, is a mirror image of Young’s article, right down to the opening quote by the arch villain of children’s literature, the Wicked Witch of the West. It even has the same typos. This leaves the burning question in one’s mind: Is Young a real author or a fictionalized character like Frank Baum’s pointy-hatted arch villain? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know for sure, but one can make a shrewd guess that one of these two authors doesn’t exist. Where does this leave the credibility of this article and its authors? It certainly doesn’t reassure the reader, but let’s set this aside and review the rest of the article with as unbiased a mind as possible.

Unfortunately, even the most unbiased readers are immediately bombarded with an introductory quote designed to shift their bias toward the viewpoint of the author. After all, any article starting with a poison quote from the Wicked Witch of the West herself is sure to be about a most deadly poison. Quietly entering the reader’s mind, such introductory quotes play upon the subconscious as the reader continues the article. In this case, always reminding us that if there were ever a poison worthy of the Wicked Witch of the West, it would be poppers. The next logical question is why did the author(s) find it necessary to vilify poppers with this quote? Doesn’t the quality of the article speak for itself? Aren’t the claims made strong enough to convince the reader that what he or she is reading is fact? Unfortunately for the author, the answer is no. In most cases, the claims made in Getchell’s article are completely without substance. As such, any means of biasing the reader from the onset is a welcome addition. This is a big claim, one that shouldn’t be made lightly when reviewing any article, and one you will want to assess for yourself. What follows is a review of Young’s text that attempts to provide you with a second viewpoint on the claims made in his article. I hope you will use it to weigh the claims made by Young through a less biased set of glasses than those worn by the author, and come to your own conclusions about the validity of the ideas he has proposed as fact.

Leaving the Emerald Kingdom behind, the first claim worth considering in the article is the statement that poppers are back, after "almost dropping from sight in the mid-to-late AIDies." Admittedly, this is a witty pun on words, but that's all it is. Popper use was indeed in its heyday in the 1960 and 70s – and into the mid 1980’s, decreasing, as did most drug use when these psychedelic decades were left behind. However, contrary to the author's claim, use of the compound did not drop out of sight during the late 1980’s, only to resurge in the 1990s when Getchell's article was written. Instead, use has remained consistent to the present day. Retailers of the compound continued to sell it worldwide in regular retail stores, and on the Internet. Young goes on to claim "a friend who used to work in one of the bathhouses here told me their basement was filled with crates of the stuff until just a little while ago." This is quite a claim. Not only is that an incredibly large volume of poppers, but since poppers are not even shipped in crates (rather they are shipped in cardboard shipping boxes like most other consumer products) the claim is even more unlikely. Of course, there is no way of disproving the claim, but it is rather suspicious that Stan Getchell claims a friend told him exactly the same thing in his article. There certainly must be a lot of bathhouses with very full basements in Toronto, or someone is not telling the truth here!

The author goes on to claim that poppers are "not just in the big centers, either. When I visited Saskatoon a few years ago, everyone on the dance floor of the gay bar seemed to be snorting them." But in the next paragraph he further states "of all the drugs, legal and illegal, that have been funneled into the gay ghetto over the years, the cheapest and (apart from alcohol and tobacco) most widely available was poppers." The last time I checked, Saskatoon was certainly not a gay ghetto into which drugs had been "funneled" over the years. If everyone was snorting them at the Saskatoon club, then the dance club was probably selling a legal formulation to patrons directly. As for Young’s claim that poppers are the cheapest and most widely available drug apart from alcohol and cigarettes, one would hope that they would be less regulated than these compounds. Compared to the big bad wolves of cigarettes and alcohol, poppers have a safety record that cannot be competed with. Poppers are a non-addictive compound that do not result in abuse, cancer, hazardous driving, hospital stays or the like. If only alcohol and cigarettes, could boast the same!

In the next paragraph, Young provides what he claims is more background information on poppers, stating that poppers were prescribed "for the occasional use of certain heart patients." With this claim, the author denies over a hundred years of history during which time amyl nitrite (a variety of alkyl nitrite, the scientific name for poppers) was the drug of choice for the treatment of heart pain or angina until it was replaced by nitroglycerine. As such, the compound was both widely prescribed and safely used, with no restrictions such as that intimated by Getchell.

Leaving the annals of medicine and returning to the bar scene, the author reminisces about rampant poppers use in gay bars in Manhattan, stating that "some disco clubs would even add to the general euphoria by occasionally spraying the dance floor with poppers fumes." This urban myth has no place in a serious article. There has never been any proof that a disco or dance club sprayed poppers, a highly flammable compound, onto a dance floor. To do so would be to put their establishment at risk. Young goes on to quote a book by another author, Michael Rumaker, describing gay baths that "permeated with that particularly inert, greasy odor of poppers. Wherever you went, the musky chemical smell of it was constantly in your nostrils." The author, according to Young, was forced to gasp for breath out of a window to escape the permeating odor. Naturally, given that they enhance sex, one would expect poppers to be used in a gay bathhouse; however, to claim that one would have to open a window to breathe freely is clearly an exaggerated claim.

In another walk down memory lane, Young recalls an episode at a party in the 1970s where an acquaintance spilled a bottle of poppers on his leg, causing "a terrible and very unsightly burn." (Once again it seems that twin authors Young and Getchell have attended the same party, having both mentioned the episode in their articles.) In any case, it is a very unlikely story. A search of the Materials Safety Data Sheet on the compound indicates skin irritation is possible, but there is no mention of burns of any nature, severe or otherwise. The only other possibility is that the formulation was very impure and another contaminating chemical caused the burn.

Returning to discuss the original use of alkyl nitrites as a treatment for angina, the author reports that the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome had both the patent for the compound and a monopoly (incidentally it was also sold be Eli-Lilly) on its sale, providing the company with a healthy profit. Interestingly, in an attempt to vilify poppers by associating them with the gross profits of a pharmaceutical giant, the author a shoots himself in the foot as he leaves the reader wondering why, if so much alkyl nitrite was sold without so much as a peep from the public, the Food and Drug Administration or the medical establishment during over 150 years of amyl nitrite use, are we only hearing about possible safety issues now, from a small group of activists who dissent from the common medical view? Someone must be wrong here, but who? Young goes on to claim that nitroglycerine, the compound that replaced alkyl nitrite for treatment of angina in the 1960s was "better, more convenient, and it didn't give you a headache." While it’s certainly true that nitroglycerin tablets were more convenient, the claim that they don't produce a headache in some patients is false. All nitrite-based heart medications relax smooth muscle, allowing the blood vessels to dilate. The heart pumps faster to compensate for this and the rush of blood to the brain in particular may cause a headache in some cases. No matter whether nitroglycerine or amyl nitrites are used, the resulting headache and physiological changes that cause it are the same.

Young further hints that because alkyl nitrites are marked "poison" (this warning is meant to prevent people from swallowing the compound, which is unsafe, rather than inhaling it, the safe and intended means of use), sales of amyl nitrite began to decline in the 1950s. Contrary to this claim, sales of amyl nitrite ampules continued at a constant level for both for Wellcome and Lilly. At this time, the homosexual and avant guard community were also purchasing the compound for its pleasurable sexual effects. A little more detail and accuracy would go a long way in convincing their readers that the authors' arguments are valid. Unfortunately the authors don't seem to have these at their disposal. Continuing with this historical account, Young(and Getchell) chronicles that at this point in time, "it occurred to someone that there must surely be other lucrative markets for amyl nitrate, with its characteristic throbbing 'rush' and short-lived feeling of euphoria." The true historical background surrounding poppers, revolves around Clifford Hassing, a then young pre-medical school student in Los Angeles, who structurally altered amyl nitrite to create isobutyl nitrite and launched Locker Room®, the first ever bottled popper. This was soon followed by RUSH®, which became and remains today the most popular popper worldwide. Dozens of other brands followed over the years.

The article further argues that "contacts with the US military were sounded out, and before long, poppers had found a new test market in the jungle battlefields of Vietnam" and that "quite a few backline supply sergeants found they could use their Mob contacts from civilian life to transport drugs from Southeast Asia to the US." At this point, the reader needs to ask how much of this conspiracy theory they are willing to endure! If some put the article down at this point and cry "enough", I would be quick to join their cause. Considering that poppers were legal at the time of the Vietnam War (the United States Congress banned the sale of alkyl nitrites in 1991), I have to wonder what role mob contacts would play in shipping room deodorizers to the battlefields of Southeast Asia. You'd think they'd have more lucrative things to do with their time. Young further claims that "For the boys in 'Nam, nitrite inhalants were a welcome addition to the chemical stew. They were legal, they were easy to carry, and they were being shipped in from the States, literally by the crateful - touted as an antidote to gun fumes!" I'm afraid there is no rebuttal for this legation other than to point out that it simply isn’t true. You'll notice though that poppers are again being shipped by the crateful, a fallacy previously addressed.

The next statement the author makes is even more intriguing and outrageous. According to Getchell, "when the surviving GIs returned home, many of them were eager to keep up their poppers habit, and under heavy pressure from the manufacturers, the Food and Drug Administration made a ruling sanctioning over-the-counter sales." Certainly, the FDA did decide poppers were safe enough for over the counter sales, but this decision was based on their belief that they were safe. The idea that one of the largest government departments would risk the safety of consumers in order to satisfy a drug addiction of returning American GI’s (poppers are not addictive) doesn't really warrant consideration, except to mention that the author later claims that poppers were the drug of the gay population, not used by straight people, who in fact made up the majority of American soldiers at the time.

A year later, claims Young, "the first reports of peacetime casualties began to come in." Fortunately, the "terrible skin burns, blackouts, breathing difficulties and blood anomalies" that Young claims to have caused the return of poppers to prescription-only status, are false to begin with. This is a compound that has been safely used for 150 years to treat angina. Why would it suddenly cause a rash of symptoms in consumers a year after becoming available for over-the-counter sales? Logically, even when a prescription was required, similar reports should have come in, if at a lower level, but they didn't. The true story is that poppers were reclassified for prescription sale by the FDA solely based on the request by the drug companies making them, who were concerned about their public image because of the increase in use of the compound by the avant guard and gay communities, both of which were buying them to enhance sex and enjoyment of dancing. In the end, the only side effects that resulted in this change in status were political ones.
In the next paragraph, Young returns to his argument of mafia involvement, claiming that Hassing (recall he made isobutyl nitrite, a variation of amyl nitrite, selling it under the label Locker Room®) was "muscled out of his thoughtful little home-lab operation by organized crime syndicates" who altered the chemical structure of the compound further to create "butyl and isobutyl nitrite - less pure, more toxic, and even faster-acting than the original amyl." This was sold under the name of RUSH®. While it's true that other companies entered the market with varying brands, and one brand – RUSH® – took the lead, there was no involvement of organized crime in the companies that produced and sold any of the major brands. Nor has there been at anytime thereafter. Hassing’s Locker Room® brand consisted of isobutyl nitrite. Butyl and isobutyl nitrite are chemicals that vary slightly in structure from amyl nitrite. Like amyl nitrite, they are pure chemical compounds. They are in no way “less pure” or “more toxic” as Young describes.

Young goes on to claim that “the FDA apparently wanted nothing more than to be done with the whole business, and a modus vivendi was established. The unwritten agreement seems to have been: public distribution of poppers would be permitted - as long as they were labelled ‘room odorizer’ and marketed only to gay men.” This is an interesting claim, considering that the FDA had no jurisdiction over poppers when sold as ‘room odorants’. They are, after all, the Food and Drug Administration. Instead, jurisdiction over nitrite room odorants (poppers) fell upon the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). In 1980, the CPSC completed a year-long investigation of the industry, including a large-scale review of national data concerning the use of room odorants as inhalants and the potential dangers of doing so. The final outcome of this review was that use of nitrite-based room odorants per label instructions, and as inhalants, was safe. As a result, the CPSC refused to ban alkyl nitrites, and instead, mandated that manufacturers make specific labelling changes. Despite these facts, Young claims that the unwritten agreement with the FDA enabled poppers to become a "multi-million dollar business for the mob.” Again, I find this point to be a curious one. Since poppers were not illegal until 1991, how could the mafia have developed multi-million dollar profits through the sale of legal products that could be bought in any store? The only known connection of the mafia to poppers sales may have been in the 1970s when the mafia controlled many adult books stores. These stores sold poppers, as well other legal products, such as cigarettes and condoms; however, multi-million dollar profits from poppers, a legal product, seem unlikely. The mafia generally made its money off the sale of illegal products, extortion, etc.

Leaving the mafia behind, Young moves on to consider the role of the gay press in poppers advertising in the 1970s and early 1980s. Young’s claim that at this time, "poppers ads appeared only in gay publications” is on shaky ground, as a quick search of most of the popular straight men’s magazines published during those years, such as Playboy, Penthouse, Penthouse Forum and more, shows that these magazines all carried articles about poppers or paid advertisements for the compound. Young’s claim that "poppers became an accepted part of gay sex” as a result of this advertising, also warrants some consideration. Even if one discounts the fact that poppers were and continue to be sold to both homosexuals and heterosexuals, this statement both insults the intelligence of all homosexuals and unrealistically exaggerates the power of advertising through its insinuation that poppers were incorporated into gay sex due to an advertising campaign. Clearly, poppers are part of gay sex because they enhance the sexual experience. Even the best advertising campaign in the world would not overly influence consumer behavior if consumers didn’t believe the product lived up to the claims made by advertisers. How many people would continue to buy Viagra® if it only made their toes curl up? Not many. As such, Young’s claim seems to be more of an attempt to vilify the gay press for whatever reason. (Perhaps it’s because Young and Getchell are associated with the New York Native, the failed gay newspaper that began to rail against poppers when the industry started to cut back on poppers ads in the Native, due to it’s lack of readership.)

Unfortunately for the reader, the author’s claims regarding scientific studies conducted on alkyl nitrites are equally biased. Indeed studies have linked poppers to many of the conditions Young mentions; however, what he fails to tell the reader is that these studies were either in vitro (test tube studies) or conducted on animals. As all trained scientists are aware, it is very rare that findings from in vitro studies can be transferred to human beings. Instead, they are used as a starting point for further studies on animals and humans. Numerous studies were also conducted in which animals were exposed to varying degrees of alkyl nitrites. All studies published in scientific journals are peer reviewed, i.e. other scientists in the field check them for accuracy, repeatability, and validity of findings, etc. The animal studies that produced the findings mentioned by Young had many flaws that he fails to reveal to the reader. Most of these studies were carried out on mice, but the doses given to the rodents were not dose-adjusted for their smaller size. This is a basic tenant of animal research: if you are going to extrapolate findings from animals to humans, you must adjust for differences in lung and body size. This was rarely done in these studies. If fact, most mice were provided with doses that far exceeded the amount inhaled during human use; they were also exposed to the compound for a much longer time period than humans are during inhalation. At such toxic doses and exposure durations, it is no wonder that heart, lung and brain damage (among other symptoms) resulted. Even Aspirin is toxic if a subject is given enough of it. Curiously, most of the studies that found that alkyl nitrites reduced immune function also showed a complete reversal of this suppression when the subject was no longer inhaling the compound, even at near lethal doses! The moral of this story is don’t make scientific claims unless you understand the scientific methods used to evaluate the findings. Interestingly, most prestigious, peer-reviewed journals saw the flaws in the studies Young has quoted and therefore did not publish them. If you look up any of these articles, you’ll find they’ve been published in smaller journals that are often not peer reviewed. None of the articles appear in respected medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine or the Journal of the American Medical Association, although these journals have published articles that found inhalation of alkyl nitrites at normal doses and duration to be completely non-toxic.

Young gets it wrong again, when he states in his article that prior to the first reports of AIDS in 1981 “relatively few voices had been raised to question what health problems poppers users might be causing themselves.” Several state regulatory bodies were already studying poppers throughout the 1970’s as numerous petitions to ban them were submitted to federal and state agencies by concerned parties. This issue of safety had been addressed by several distinguished studies in the USA and Canada, all of which reported their safety when used as inhalants. The most well-known of these was published in 1979 by a group of prominent scientists and doctors, including Dr. John Parker from Queen's University, who had been the chairman of the Division of Cardiology there for nearly a decade and was a specialist in nitrite vasodilators, including alkyl nitrites; along with Mark Nickerson, PhD, MD, professor and past chairman of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at McGill University, in Montreal – who at the time had for nearly forty years been the author of the nitrite vasodilator chapter of Goodman & Gillman’s standard textbook of pharmacology, and who was considered “perhaps the most eminent pharmacologist of the twentieth century”. The result of their findings was clear: “No important acute or chronic toxic effects have been demonstrated with the volatile nitrites, and their use in an uncontrolled and unregulated fashion has proven to be safe."

Returning to Young's article, the author reports that a “few attempts were made to curb sales, but the manufacturers always got around it by changing either the chemical formula or the product name.” Changing product names does not get around product bans. Imagine how many people would be selling marijuana under a pseudonym if it did! Some states, such as Connecticut, did indeed ban the sale of poppers before they were illegalized nationally.

Young also draws attention to the fact that a "researcher contacted Robert McQueen, the Advocate's editor, to warn him that poppers strongly suppress the immune system and could contribute to KS and Pneumocystis pneumonia. But McQueen said he wasn't interested.” Scientists now know that poppers play no role in long-term or significant immune suppression, or in AIDS-related illness. In the late 1990s, a herpes virus, HHV-8, was isolated as the cause of both AIDS-related and non-AIDS related Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS).

Perhaps The Advocate had other reasons for not publishing the warning. As the nation’s largest and most prestigious gay publication, the Advocate's editor was likely aware of ongoing mainstream research that had determined there was no link between poppers and AIDS. The author then continues with what could only be euphemistically called a discussion about poppers advertising in the gay press. I’m not sure what the style of advertisements has to do with the safety of using poppers, so I will leave you to review this section at your leisure and come to your own conclusions. To me this part of the article seems to be some sort of attempt to again place the gay press in a bad light, although the reason remains unclear (however, there may be a connection to the author’s relationship with the New York Native, the failed gay newspaper, as mentioned earlier). The author’s comment that “poppers ads often combined appeals to masculinity and potency with this sort of overt or covered death imagery while at the same time, the political right was sending gays messages that they deserved to die, and information on the deathly effects of poppers was being suppressed” seems both bizarre and unsubstantiated. The author’s claim that a “number of studies of the effects of poppers have strongly suggested a link between poppers use and the appearance of Kaposi's sarcoma in young gay men” is completely true, but both of these findings were correlational rather than causal. These same studies also found that homosexual men with KS tend to have had hepatitis B; use other drugs such as amphetamines, barbiturates, cocaine, LSD, and marijuana to name a few; had a greater number of sexual partners than those without KS; and have an income over $20,000 per year, but the author fails to mention this. As described earlier, the HHV-8 virus was isolated in the late 1990s as the cause of KS, discrediting a poppers-KS connection, yet, this author and his cohorts have refused to publicly acknowledge this and continue to publish anti-popper ramblings.

Further claims by the author that after 1984, “most jurisdictions made poppers illegal - in spite of a well-financed campaign by a leading manufacturer, W.J. Freezer, the 'Pope of Poppers”, is not based on any substantiated facts – it is simply untrue. As for the comment that “the official explanation of AIDS has shown itself to have holes big enough to drive a truck through”, numerous studies have followed HIV-positive individuals and HIV-negative individuals over time. In these studies, many HIV-positive, non-poppers users developed AIDS; none of the HIV-negative poppers users developed AIDS. Case closed. In the early 1980s, there was some investigation into the possible association between inhaling nitrites and the subsequent development of AIDS, but it was quickly shown that no link existed, as was the case with the poppers-KS hypothesis in later years.

Young closes his article with a few personal anecdotes (not surprisingly, the same ones are also shared by Getchell in his identical article). Among his claims are that many gay men can’t enjoy sex or ejaculate without poppers. This is clearly false. Scientific research has shown alkyl nitrites have a transient effect on the human body and are not addictive.

The author also has a tendency to remind the reader that numerous AIDS activists and others that didn't agree with his theory are now dead of AIDS… "George Whitmore, Jerry Mills, Robert McQueen, W.J. Freezer, and Michael Lynch are no longer with us. They all died of AIDS.” Does this intimate that for some reason they died of AIDS because they didn’t agree with his discredited theories that poppers, not HIV causes AIDS? It seems so in Getchell’s mind. If only it were true, the cure for AIDS would already be in our grasp!

Even AZT doesn’t escape Getchell’s closing comments, but rather than being “the highly-toxic 'anti-AIDS' drug” he claims, AZT is a drug that has prolonged the lives of numerous AIDS patients. Like many drugs, it is not without side effects, but it has long been one of our best weapons in the deadly battle against AIDS. That in itself is much more than the ideas of Young (and Stan Getchell) have to offer the millions suffering from the disease.

So, what about our initial questions? Were the claims the author made valid? Were the facts he quoted substantiated? Based on the evidence provided, the answer to both has to be an unequivocal NO. In fact, most lunar landing conspiracy articles provide more substantial evidence to support their arguments than this article does. As such, I would recommend reading anything else published by these authors with a healthy dose of cynicism. The scientific community has long proved the safety of inhaling poppers; it’s about time that anti-poppers activists use their intelligence and graciously put their long dead hypotheses to rest.

“Have you brains?” asked the Scarecrow.
“ I suppose so. I’ve never looked to see,” replied the Lion.

--- The Scarecrow and the Lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

©2006 Ted Bowman

Reprinted From: The Poppers Story -- the History of Nitrite Odorants