“I still feel like I’m managing the thing,” says Melina (first name changed), a pharmacy student who discovered the product in September 2021 and ensures never to consume more than ten cartridges in one evening and space out her doses.

However, she herself tells AFP that she once rescued one of her friends, “completely revolted”, when they had both just inhaled “proto”: “I had to force her to open her mouth to vomit because she was half choking”.

Used as an analgesic in medicine and in kitchen siphons, this gas is also prized for its short psychoactive effects – of the order of three to four minutes – when inhaled, most often via balloons inflated by capsules or carboys.

“We see more and more of them in consultation”, explains to AFP Hélène Donadieu Rigole, head of the addiction service at the Montpellier University Hospital, which follows young people from the age of 11 for different forms of addiction.

In 2021, 5.5% of 3rd class students say they have already consumed “proto”, boys twice as often as girls, according to the EnCLASS survey of the French Observatory of Drugs and Addictive Tendencies (OFDT). ), which shows much higher figures for alcohol, tobacco or cannabis.

“Among older students, it is common to find proto in the evening. There is most often a recreational use, and unfortunately in some people a problematic use with medical and psychological consequences”, adds the addictologist.

The consumption of nitrous oxide presents risks such as asphyxia, loss of consciousness, burns but also, in the event of repeated use and/or in high doses, severe neurological, hematological, psychiatric and cardiac disorders, warns the Interministerial Mission for the Fight against Drugs and Addictive Behaviours.

A law of May 2021 certainly prohibits the sale of nitrous oxide to minors and its marketing in drinking and tobacco outlets. In fact, the repression remains weak and the “proto” can be bought in large quantities and at low cost on resale sites and Snapchat accounts – with nicknames followed by a red balloon emoticon – which offer home deliveries. even at night.

– The influence of friends and networks –

On social networks, balloons are displayed in the Instagram “stories” of friends, or in the mouths of influencers, footballers or rappers.

However, online as in the evening, “peers play a central role in the emergence and maintenance of [the] curiosity” to experiment with the product, because “they positively describe the effects of the gas to the novice and insist on its character supposedly harmless in the event of apprehension”, notes the OFDT, in a report devoted to nitrous oxide in August.

“When I saw my best friend taking it, she who doesn’t drink and isn’t the type to do silly things, I said to myself: if she can test it, it won’t matter to me either”, confides Héloïse (first name changed), just of age when she started taking “proto” regularly with other medical students.

“I stopped because I thought it was a bit too much social consumption,” says the student.

But by advising on the actions to be taken to minimize the risks (sit down, not associating substances, etc.), “peers also play a regulatory and monitoring role”, tempers Clément Gérome, national coordinator of the Tendances system. recent and new drugs (TREND) at the OFDT.

For the research manager, “the question of vulnerabilities is central to explaining that we leave the festive framework and that we fall into problematic consumption”. He cites economic precariousness, family problems, school failure, as factors of this vulnerability.

According to him, some young people who consume in a festive setting do not feel concerned by massive consumption of several dozen cartridges per shot.

Hence the interest, explains the researcher, of setting up “prevention campaigns adapted” to different types of consumers.