Petrol sniffing among Aboriginals
Differing social meanings
Maggie Brady, visiting fellow Australian Institute of Aboriginal studies

One of the major health and social issues facing young Aboriginal people in Australia today is the use of volatile solvents. The substance of choice for adolescent Aborigines in rural and remote regions of the country is petrol (gasoline), primarily because of its ready availability (every remote community requires petrol for vehicles, outboards, generators), cheapness (it can be stolen, or purchased in small quantities) and the rapidity of mood alteration its inhalation produces. While the number of individuals using petrol as an inhalant constitute a tiny proportion of the overall Australian population, and even of the Aboriginal population, they are, as Carroll has noted a population which may have impact beyond their numbers (Carroll,1977:17).

There have been some sporadic surveys and government enquiries, but little socially- or policy-oriented research has been undertaken to address the issue. This means that government policy (for example, whether to criminalise sniffing) and health education efforts (to emphasise or minimise the potential dangers?) have been hampered by scanty and ill-informed data. The author has recently completed an anthropological study of petrol sniffing in an attempt to grasp Aboriginal perceptions of the practice, and by so doing increase our understanding of why sniffing appears to be such an intractable drug use and why Aboriginal communities themselves find it virtually impossible to dislodge.

The matter of problem definition

The orientation of most written and spoken comment on the practice of petrol sniffing by Aborigines is what Robin Room would term problem inflation (Room,1984). Despite the fact that sniffing has been occurring in even the most remote locations since the 1960s, government agencies responsible for delivering health and welfare services to Aborigines have, in the last ten years, finally come to define sniffing as a serious issue. A government Select Committee was formed in 1983 to enquire into volatile substance abuse, and half of its final report was devoted to petrol sniffing (Commonwealth of Australia,1985). The Committee nominated three broad reasons for the problematic nature of sniffing: it produces severe physical and psychological effects on users; it threatens to destroy completely a fragile social system; and the use of petrol is extensive and of considerable magnitude. Let us examine each of these three defined problems, as articulated by concerned non-Aboriginal Australians.

There is no doubt that the chronic inhalation of petrol fumes can produce serious physical sequelea, including seizures, tremor, anorexia, hyperactivity, bizarre behaviour, encephalopathy and ataxia (Brady,1990). An acute response can take the form of what is known as sudden sniffing death in which the volatile hydrocarbons in petrol induce spontaneous cardiac arrythmia, particularly after strenuous activity following sniffing (Bass,1970; Morice, Swift & Brady,1981). Aboriginal teenagers have been sniffing petrol so consistently that they are regularly evacuated (usually by air) after becoming comatose, or showing neurological signs, to regional hospitals. Once hospitalised, they may be restrained, and treated with tranquillizers or with the more controversial chelating agents (E DTA, BAL) which supposedly assist in the removal from the body of the heavy metal compounds in leaded petrol. One northern hospital has created a special sound-proof sniffers bay with four beds in its psychiatric ward. There have been 35 deaths in eight years (1981-1988), of Aboriginal youths throughout the country, deaths which have been officially attributed to the use of petrol as an inhalant. All but one were young males, with a mean age of 19 years. It is almost certainly an underestimated figure (Brady, in press). The extent of long-term neurological damage among chronic users is unknown, however first hand accounts by community health sisters in remote clinics would suggest that each community with chronic sniffing has several permanently damaged individuals. Those hospitalised often return to their communities walking with frames. Ranged against these disturbing facts, it is important to note that many young Aborigines experiment with petrol sniffing with no apparent ill-effect. In communities where sniffing was practised in the 1960s and 1970s, adults who are now Council chairmen and community leaders sniffed petrol at one time; they now have children of their own. Alcohol and tobacco use have a far more serious impact on overall Aboriginal mortality and morbidity in Australia. However, together, the cost of alcohol and petrol sniffing within a small community can be high. In one of my fieldwork locations, a community with a population of approximately 350, six individuals aged between 12 and 25 had died over a three year period, and all as a result of alcohol use or petrol sniffing. Of all deaths in the community, over half were associated with alcohol or petrol.

The second issue identified by the Select Committee was that petrol sniffing threatened to destroy completely the Aboriginal social system. In the past, drug use has been portrayed as being a threat to entire nations (Kohn,1987), and white observers have long been predicting that alcohol use threatens to make extinct the Aboriginal population (Spencer,1988). However, as Kohn observes, while there is a pervasive notion that drug use will somehow lay the body politic low from within, societies do seem to display extraordinary resilience in the face of mass intoxication (Kohn,1987:28). A contributory element to the notion that Aboriginal people might die out as a result of drug or alcohol use, is the myth that mood-altering substances were unknown before white contact (the formal invasion and settlement commenced in 1788). The historical record shows otherwise. Not only did Aboriginal people use powerful indigenous tobaccos, they chewed pituri (see Pamela Watson in this volume), and ingested a variety of stupefying roots and concoctions, but they also (in some regions) prepared intoxicating beverages made laboriously from Eucalyptus sap, blossoms and wild honey, and the soaked cones of the grass tree (Plomley,1966; Carr & Carr,1981; Thomson,1939 .

While many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people accept that petrol sniffing and its attendant disruptions are interfering with the religious apprenticeship of (predominantly) young men, and with the learning processes that young people undergo about the land and its resources, this is not to suggest that the entire fabric of Aboriginal cultural and   religious belief is under threat. There are large regions of Australia with Aboriginal populations whose young people are not engaging in the practice.

It is notable that petrol sniffers are frequently perceived (by non-Aborigines) to be a threat to the social order, rather than to the survival of the race. The incidence of petrol sniffing has for many years been gauged more by the degree of social disruption and damage to property associated with sniffing, than by the actual extent of the practice (Hayward- Ryan,1979). One submission to the Select Committee for example, asserted that sniffing provided an opportunity for those children from depressed environments to blatantly incite society. This flaunting of authority appears to be an integral part of Aboriginal glue sniffing (Commonwealth of Australia,1985:26). Perhaps, as Jaffe dryly observes, we need to remind ourselves from time to time about why we are concerned [about drug use] so that we can direct our remedies to the sources of our concern daffe,1983:105).

The Committees third point was (somewhat tautologously) that sniffing was a problem because it was of considerable magnitude. Certainly there are groupings of communities in certain regions with a high prevalence of petrol sniffing. There are also, anomalously, neighbouring populations where sniffing is not practised.

There are 83,427 young Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia aged between 10 and 24, forming 37 per cent of the total Aboriginal and Islander population (227,645 at the 1986 Census). These populations are differentially distributed among the States and Territories, with New South Wales and Queensland having the greatest proportions of Aboriginal people, many living in urban and rural areas. While the sniffing of other volatile solvents has been noted in these States, it is in the remote regions of the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia that petrol sniffing is found. Within these regions are clusters of remote townships, ex-missions and decentralised outstations where Aboriginal people live, many continuing their traditional economies of hunting, fishing and foraging, and actively pursuing their ceremonial life. The use of petrol as an inhalant varies markedly between communities in these areas: some have experienced sniffing virtually continuously since the 1960s, some have young people who have commenced the practice comparatively recently, and some have sporadic outbreaks which are quickly controlled.

The value in clarifying this epidemiology is two-fold. Firstly it tempers a sensational over-reaction to the issue and secondly it calls into question simplistic explanations for the practice which rely on reasons of poverty, culture clash and colonisation to explain sniffing. Studies of the variation (in drug and alcohol use) between groups help to shift the stereotype that Aboriginal groups have responded similarly to the historical and political stresses placed upon them (Kunitz et.al.1971). Nurcombe and colleagues (1970) writing of Arnhem Land Aborigines, and Barnes (1985) writing of Canadian Indians, for example, both assert that heavy abuse of petrol occurs where cultural changes are in process. Neither, however, explains why sniffing was not present among neighbouring groups who were also experiencing rapid cultural changes. These explanations carry with them questionable assumptions too, for example the notion that non-acculturated (ie traditional) societies were unchanging, and the implication that cultural change is necessarily stressful. Many would argue that Aboriginal people have in fact successfully adapted Western technologies and values in some cases. Ironically perhaps, petrol sniffing is prevalent in some regions where Aboriginal contact with the land has been only minimally disrupted. Two of the three major regions where sniffing is practised are Aboriginal-owned land, under Federal or State land rights legislation. In several petrol sniffing communities adherence to indigenous religious belief is strong, and traditional responsibilities to the land (visiting and caring for sites, living and foraging on owned tracts) are meticulously followed.

My own work has found that in general petrol sniffing is distributed among populations who share linguistic, cultural and ceremonial associations requiring frequent exchanges of visitors and activities, but that it is not inevitable that all such communities show an incidence of the practice. It also became clear that Aboriginal communities whose primary associations are with other non-sniffing populations tended not to have sniffing among their youth. I found that communities which have known sniffing for several decades have greater difficult! in successful intervention, because the adults have themselves been sniffers and for this reason are unlikely to take decisive action with their own children. On the other hand, communities which were willing to act collectively and forcefully to curb the activities of sniffers often succeeded in doing so. This could involve harsh physical punishment of sniffers.

Aboriginal perceptions

Aboriginal people, no less than non Aborigines, seek to explain disturbing or socially-threatening events as a way of containing and taming them, and in order to make sense of them. To some extent, Aboriginal people have internalised non-Aboriginal understandings of drug uses such as petrol sniffing, so that many offer global explanations similar to other lay views. These include ideas about how others bring up their children, that adult spend too much money on alcohol or that children are spoilt. Those exposed to certain intervention programs (such as one based on the Hazleden co-dependency model which is influential in some areas), express the view that children who sniff (like adults who drink) have a sickness inside - the disease model applied to petrol sniffing. Such views run counter to traditional models of illness and deviant behaviour which have stressed outside influences, usually malevolent (Reid,1983). Kunitz and Levy (1974) have observed that definitions change (in their case among Navaho drinkers) among indigenous people in keeping with the pressure of expectations and obligations of the dominant society. In the case of sniffing, so many ad hoc researchers and concerned community staff members have questioned Aboriginal people about the issue that they have been forced to create some reasoned explanations. These explanations are in reality strategies whereby Aboriginal people attempt to come to terms with actions increasingly defined as deviant by the outside world.

The official representation of the Aboriginal view of sniffing was articulated by an urban Aboriginal spokesman in his submission to the Select Committee. He asserted that sniffing arose from a number of causes, including: the destruction of Aboriginal culture, denial of rights, enforced isolation, inadequate housing, destruction of the traditional economy and the enforcement of inappropriate laws and values (Hansard Report, Senate Select Committee on Volatile Substance Fumes, 18 March 1985:807-8).

Meanwhile in the everyday experience of the communities that were part of my fieldwork, two conflicting threads, one of opinion, the other of action, exist. Community Councils, chairpersons, health workers and other spokespeople express alarm and concern about the practice. Among large number of the population, on the other hand, an accommodation has been reached. Sniffers are part of the human geography of life in communities: they are to be see walking around, alone or in groups, by day or by night; quiet or demonstrative.

They go to their homes, get fed, sleep, have nightmares, receive comfort or remonstration, join their friends, ride the bikes . If someone has seizures, or becomes unconscious after sniffing, a relative seeks help; sedatives are administered, the sniffer is placed in the clinic, is visited by concerned relatives, and perhaps is evacuated. Later the sniffer returns, somewhat tremulous and unsteady, but improved. He is received back into his family . In the regions where I worked personal autonomy is of paramount importance, as is unrestrained generosity. These two qualities are emphasised in socialisation throughout life. Overt expressions of even deranged behaviour (by those clinically diagnosed with psychiatric disorder), and of inebriation (including acts of aggression to animate and inanimate objects, noisiness, disturbance to the sleep of others) are largely tolerated and accommodated. Instead, of remonstrating that a drunken person has kept everyone awake, a relative will take the individual a billy of tea the next morning, an act of generosity

Should someone attempt to convince a drinker or a sniffer that his actions are self-destructive and damaging to his body they will be met with the retort that they can do as they please with their own body and that no-one can stop them - an assertion of personal autonomy. Young people are treated as autonomous individuals from an early age in socialisation modes that non-Aboriginal observers often label extremely permissive. Children learn by experimentation and by freedom of exploration, even to the extent that they may be allowed to take unnecessary risks. Several researchers have noted that Aboriginal child-rearing practices allow tantrums and aggression (often directed physically to the mother), and documented the tolerant humour with which adults often aquiesce in a childs demands (Hamilton, 1981 ; Myers, 1986; Harris,198 4). Indeed, petrol sniffers exploit this finely-balanced system, using their proclivities as a weapon. A Pitjantjatjara man explained it to me thus:

They want to make parents remember them. If you wont buy anything for me, I can do anything! If parents wont buy them clothes or food, tucker, if no food after school, no biscuits or chips, cool drinks [if] mother says no [the sniffer thinks] my parents don t worry about me ".

Another Aboriginal woman observed that a male sniffer was no good because he was boss over mother and father. The petrol sniffers have, then, inverted the emphasis in Aboriginal life which places the older and more mature in charge. In religious life, knowledge is accumulated gradually, by participation in ceremony and the enactment of ritual responsibilities; this process only begins (among young males) at the age of 17, although there are regional variations.

Until the first major ceremonies, young men (who are adult in other respects) may be termed boys. Young people are relatively powerless in remote communities. With the rise of political concepts of self-management (now government policy), decision-making lies in the hands of local Aboriginal councils, or legally incorporated Local Government Councils. These are all dominated by adults, primarily men. Community Councils are preoccupied with adult concerns and priorities, and the distribution of (not inconsiderable) resources lies in their hands. For example, a community in receipt of over $1 million in royalty payments in the Northern Territory allocated only 3.5 per cent of this amount to young people (provision of a recreation officer), even when those under 19 years of age constituted 50 per cent of the total population. Communities with a fundamentalist Christian orientation (again from my fieldwork data) consistently prevented the use of Church-owned property by young people who had no recreation hall for roller skating, band practice, and discos. Some adult Christians have even banned the formation of local rock bands. While funds are made available for ceremonies, funerals, outstation development, there are poorly-maintained or non-existent recreation facilities for the young. Job prospects are few in remote communities, especially for those leaving school at 15 or 16.

The sniffers

There is no doubt that the use of petrol and the style that accompanies being a sniffer has become for many young Aborigines a source of power in an otherwise powerless context. A key finding from my research in the Western Desert region of Western Australia was that at least some sniffers achieve power over their own bodies by becoming thin as a result of sniffing petrol. They become anorexic. It has long been noted in the medical literature, as well as by clinic nurses, that chronic sniffers become emaciated and eventually subject to muscle wasting. Some have suggested that sniffing causes hunger (Morice, Swift & Brady,1981:23), while others believe that sniffing dulls the pangs of hunger (Ferguson,1978). My informants stressed the latter. In particular, one ex-sniffer explained "some like to sniff for the fun of it; some like to get skinny". He continued:

"When you sit at home you eat all the time. When you sniff, you go for three or four days with no food and then you see food. It stops your appetite, eating... In Y. I never eat for a week - sniff and drink water. Got skinny".

Several others reinforced these statements, including the mother of a young man who said that "he dont want to be like mother, big; dont want to be like woman". The meaning of this desire to be thin is unclear. It seems unlikely that factors thought to be associated with anorexia among young western high-achieving women (constant slimming in association with fashion trends) are having an impact in these communities.

Control over food intake, however, symbolises control over something, particularly in a context in which assertions of personal autonomy often have a bodily component. The use of sniffing as a deliberate means of losing weight obviously occurs elsewhere. At a conference in Washington in October 1990, a panel discussion among Canadian and American Indian participants elucidated the following comment:

"I.was always heavyset. I thought if I sniffed, I would lose weight, I did. Also the music, there was always this music that Id hear when I sniff. I wanted to keep hearing it". (Fast Horse,1990)

Music is also an important part of the regalia of petrol sniffers. Particularly in parts of east Arnhem Land (Aboriginal owned land in the Northern Territory of Australia), young men in some of the most tradition-oriented regions of the country have cultivated their own oppositional style which includes loud, outrageous rock music - heavy metal. Sauntering through the centre of their townships, in slashed denim jeans (shorts are worn by all other adult males), necklaces and other bodily adornments, it is common to see young male sniffers, usually in groups, holding their petrol cans or bottled supplies in one hand, while the other holds a large ghetto blaster cassette player on the shoulder. The music is broadcast for all in the vicinity to hear.

The style of the music is selected in deliberate contrast to the choices of most others, for country and western music is very popular, together with the more gentle ( and often Christian) modulations of singers such as Cliff Richard.

To provide a socio-cultural analysis of this behaviour, we must turn again to earlier comments about socialisation practices. The freedoms of childhood, particularly for young men came (in traditional times) to an abrupt end in the mid-teenage years, when boys began their ritual incorporation into religious life. Annette Hamilton, studying child socialisation practices in Arnhem Land, stated:

"For our children, the suppression of individual desires and submission to adult authority occurs at a very early age...By the time a child reaches puberty a high level of repression has already taken place and adolescence becomes a struggle to rediscover and assert a long surrendered autonomy. For the Aboriginal child, on the other hand, adolescence represents the first surrender" (Hamilton,1 981:153).

By sniffing petrol, and adopting the non-conformist trappings associated with the practice, young people (particularly young men) arey attempting to further delay their surrender to mainstream life.

In some regions, mature men are no longer accepting sniffing boys as novices in the ceremonial life; they will have to catch up as adults. Significantly many young men and women cease the practice when they marry and bear children - in other words when they become incorporated in the society.

I have only briefly considered some of the social meanings attributed to the practice of sniffing, but they perhaps illustrate the need for and the value of socially-oriented anthropological research into this particular drug use. For example, with the knowledge that sniffing itself represents an oppositional stance in conjunction with deliberately arranged displays of clothing, music and behaviour, it is unlikely that legal remedies (making it an offence) as one policy option, would be appropriate. The use of rock music itself (see opening excerpt from a song written by an Aboriginal band) may be more influential. With the knowledge that at least some users of petrol are attempting to become thin by sniffing, urging them (through health promotion) to eat well of nutritious foods needs careful thought. With the knowledge that sniffing is (once again, for some) an expression of power and control in an otherwise powerless situation, ameliorative action and policy decisions could be oriented to providing alternative sources of engagement in the political arena for young Aborigines.

The research into volatile solvent abuse among Aborigines, some of which is reported here, was funded through a grant from the Research into Drug Abuse Advisory Committee of the Department of Community Services and Health (1987-1989). The grant was administered by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra. The full report from which this material is extracted, is to be published by Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra as Heavy Metal: The Social Meaning of Petrol Sniffing in Australia (1991 in press).

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