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Jim Anderton

26 June, 2005

Time's up for sham sales of laughing gas

"The grace period for retailers selling nitrous oxide is over and those continuing to sell the canisters for inhalation could now face prosecution," Jim Anderton, Associate Minister of Health and Chair of the Ministerial Committee on Drug Policy, said today.

Nitrous oxide - 'nos' - or laughing gas, has been sold for inhalation to give users a brief high. Some retailers have been selling nitrous oxide knowing the canisters are unlikely to be used as a propellant for food such as cream.

The Ministry of Health wrote to retailers on April 22 this year informing them that N2O was a prescription medicine under the Medicines Act. That date was the cut off for further tolerance of imports, taking into account forward orders that could not be cancelled without penalty.

Having given retailers and importers almost two months to return stock, or find a legitimate purpose for non inhalation uses, the Minister is now warning retailers they can expect active enforcement, with a view to prosecution, and seizure of stocks.

"I believe the Ministry has given people a decent amount of time to organise their stock and orders. They have balanced all interests with a view to ending these sales.

"While most retailers have behaved responsibly in ceasing sales of the product, regrettably some have not. For those who continue selling nitrous oxide for inhalation purposes, I'd like to make it plain that they are putting themselves at real risk of prosecution. Sham sales under the guise of use for cream dispensing or other demonstrably false pretences will not prevent prosecution," said Jim Anderton.

Jim Anderton is urging retailers selling N2O to act responsibly and avoid the risk of prosecution. He says Customs has been working with health authorities to ensure imports are stopped at the border.

Health protection officers and police have started to hand deliver a letter (attached) and will be doing so over the next couple of weeks informing retailers they now face prosecution if they continue to flout the law.

Letter sent to retailers last week:

133 Molesworth Street
P.O Box 5013
New Zealand
Phone 04-496 2000

17 June 2005

Dear Retailer


As you are no doubt aware, on 15 April and 22 April 2005 the Ministry of Health provided information to the public and to importers on the legal status of imports and sales of nitrous oxide (also known as N2O or 'NOS'). I attach a copy of that information for you.

Further, as you are no doubt aware from that information, imports and sales of nitrous oxide for uses that are not legitimate medical uses under the Medicines Act 1981, are unlawful. In the information provided by the Ministry, the focus of enforcement was on imports and sales of nitrous oxide where it is used for non-medical inhalation. The Ministry has allowed nearly two months of tolerance for businesses to reorganise themselves because the information of 15 and 22 April might have come as a surprise to some. However, that tolerance is ending and retailers can now expect active enforcement with a view to prosecution for nitrous oxide sales that result in non-medical inhalation. They can also expect seizure of the stocks that they hold.

Some retailers have voluntarily ceased sales of nitrous oxide and we congratulate them for this, as it shows a sense of responsibility.

However, on the other side there is evidence of sales of nitrous oxide by some retailers to young children. This is a particularly insidious practice, and retailers who indulge in it can expect particularly strong enforcement.

The expectation, following the publicity in April surrounding the legal status of nitrous oxide, was that responsible retailers would move swiftly to minimise their risk exposure. Examples of steps retailers could take, apart from ceasing to sell nitrous oxide as some have done, were either returning un-sold product to whoever supplied it to them or finding legitimate non-inhalation uses. Regrettably, not all retailers have shown the necessary degree of responsibility and so it has become necessary to send this letter to give a clear signal of what action retailers can expect.

Finally, for retailers who continue to believe they can sell nitrous oxide for inhalation purposes through the use of point-of-sale notices stating that the nitrous oxide is not being sold for inhalation uses, or through the use of purported indemnity forms which customers fill out, I would like to make it plain that these retailers are putting themselves at real risk of prosecution. Sham sales under the guise of use for cream dispensing will also be prosecuted.

If you are a retailer selling nitrous oxide, this letter serves as fair warning to you of your risk, and we strongly encourage you to act responsibly and so avoid the risk of being prosecuted.

Yours sincerely
Dr Don Matheson
Deputy Director General
Public Health Directorate

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