Lawsuit Targets Stores for 'Huffing' Sales

A California group is suing chain stores Lowe's, Target and Home Depot for allegedly selling household products to children who could inhale them to get high.

"Huffing," popular among some teens and pre-teens, is the practice of inhaling chemical substances — such as glue, paint or paint thinner — to get high. Sometimes children will put products like fingernail polish remover or cement in a bag and inhale it. The practice can be deadly, said Dr. Drew Pinsky, an addiction expert and ABCNEWS consultant.

"There is an acute danger with this behavior, something called sudden sniffing death syndrome, where the circulating levels of adrenaline can sensitize the heart and people can die suddenly," Pinsky said.

Some people have also had suffocating experiences from huffing. Chronic huffing can also dissolve parts of the brain, Pinksy said.

The National Inhalant Prevention Coalition gets reports of about 100 to 125 deaths a year caused by huffing, but many parents do not realize that common household products can be dangerous to their children.

The JFK Center for Civil Rights has asked a California judge to order the national chain stores to change their business practices and repay the money that came from sales of products to minors that could be used for huffing. The center sent out minors to several stores in suburban Los Angeles to see if they could buy paint thinner.

"We found out that actually none of the retailers that we looked at were doing anything to enforce that law," said the JFK center's attorney, Oscar Valencia. "No child was ever asked for an ID. As a a matter of fact, one particular store put a happy face on a child as old as 10 years old who purchased a product, paint thinner, and on the first sentence on the back of the can is a warning."

The manufacturer's warning is that the product contains toluene, which is potentially deadly to these kids, he said.

The suit, filed April 11 in Superior Court in San Bernandino, Calif., alleges the retailers are violating a 1979 California law that forbids selling products that contain toluene to minors. Toluene is a common industrial solvent found in inks, paints, lacquers, resins, cleaners and glues.

Sold, No Questions Asked

Jeff Wynton, executive director of the JFK Center for Civil Rights, said that he acknowledges that the law can be difficult to enforce, given that potentially dangerous products are sold at drug stores, as well as home improvement stores. But, stores should have a button on their registers, just as they do for cigarettes, to confirm that they have checked IDs before the purchase of such items is completed, he said.

"It's a simple measure for them to take when they enter the product in their inventory," Wynton said. "They put a command in their program that when it's scanned, it says check ID. They do that with cigarette and alcohol purchases. This product is harmful to kids, and this law has been on the books for 20 years."

Home Depot spokeswoman Kathryn Gallagher said the chain has procedures to prevent the sale of some of the store's 35,000 products to minors. For instance, spray paints are in a cage, and cashiers who scan those particular items receive a prompt telling them to ask the buyer for identification to prove their age.

The company also said that clerks are told to check identification and not sell the products to children. Lowe's and Target representatives had no immediate comment.

"I'm surprised Home Depot is saying this, because we looked at various stores and not one store checked the child's ID," Valencia said.

Repeated Use Can Cause Brain Damage

Pinsky said there are two groups of products that children can abuse to get high. One is aerosols, such as spray paint and hairspray. The second is solvents such as gasoline, lighter fluid, nail polish remover, model airplane glue, spot removers or typewriter correction fluid.

Inhalants are not addictive, but people tend to abuse them.

"Even huffing one time can potentially kill," Pinsky said. "For instance, kids have died from huffing in cars when all the oxygen was depleted in the car. Others have died after huffing in a pool and drowning. But repeated use can cause brain damage as well as learning disabilities and memory problems."

Laws to try to prevent huffing do not seem to work, and locking up the products at home is not realistic, he said.

"Educating kids and close parental supervision are the better answers," Pinsky said.

Parents who are worried that their children are huffing should look for the following signs: rashes around the nose and mouth; red, glassy eyes; recurrent upper respiratory problems; passive-aggressive/ irritable behavior; sudden decrease in personal hygiene; and intense mood swings.