4 min

Prickly poppers

An AIDS activist wonders how a flammable drug become so popular among gay men

MIXED MESSAGES. Are poppers just good clean fun? Credit: Xtra files

It is queer – odd and deplorable in the negative sense – that in the past 30 years much of the advertising in ostensibly gay publications has been for poppers.

Poppers have been and continue to cause health problems for tens or hundreds of thousands of gay men. But there is something about gay culture that will not let them go.

It is curious that almost all gay men, but very few others, even know what poppers are. Poppers in their present form are little bottles containing a liquid mixture of volatile nitrites. When inhaled just before orgasm, poppers seem to prolong the sensation. Poppers facilitate anal intercourse by relaxing the muscles in the rectum and deadening the sense of pain.

From a biochemical standpoint, the volatile or alkyl nitrites (amyl-, butyl-, isobutyl-, propyl- and other nitrites) are powerful oxidizing agents. If spilled on the skin, they cause severe burns.

Since 1989 poppers have been a banned hazardous product in the US, (see elsewhere on this page for their history in Canada) but have remained integrally tied to urban gay male culture in both countries. Gay men have learned to read highly coded advertising in order to buy the drug on the black market – a sign of a marvelous marketing campaign, by any standard.

The original poppers were little glass capsules enclosed in mesh, which were “popped” under the nose and inhaled. Manufactured by Burroughs-Wellcome, they contained pharmaceutical amyl nitrite, and were intended for emergency relief of angina pectoris (heart pain). Amyl nitrite was a controlled substance until 1960, when the prescription requirement was eliminated by the Food And Drug Administration (FDA) in the US. From 1961 to 1969, a few gay men, primarily those with sadomasochistic proclivities, began using amyl nitrite as a recreational drug. The prescription requirement was reinstated by the FDA in 1969.

By 1970, a new industry had stepped into the breach, marketing brands of butyl and isobutyl nitrite. A most brilliant advertising campaign commenced. Within only a few years, hundreds of thousands of men were persuaded that poppers were an integral part of their gay identity. The ads conveyed the message that nothing could be butcher or sexier than to inhale these fumes. The ads linked the image of bulging muscles to a drug that had no connection whatsoever to bulging muscles.

At its peak, the poppers industry was the biggest money-maker in the gay business world, grossing upwards of $50 million per year, according to Leonard T Sigell in a 1978 article. Gay publications were delighted with the revenues they received from running full-page, four-colour ads for the various brands of poppers. In a 1983 letter to The Advocate, poppers manufacturer Joseph F Miller, president of Great Lakes Products Inc, boasted he was the “largest advertiser in the gay press.”

For gay men who came out in the ’70s, poppers appeared to be as much a part of the gay clone lifestyle as mustaches or flannel shirts. Accessories were marketed: for leather queens, there were little metal inhalers on leather thongs. One publication had a comic strip entitled Poppers; its hero, Billy, was a child-like but sexy blond, whose two main loves in life were sex and poppers.

By 1974 the poppers craze was in full swing, and by 1977 poppers were in every corner of gay life. At gay gathering places – bars, baths, leather clubs – the popper miasma was taken for granted. For some gay men, poppers became a sexual crutch, without which they were incapable of having sex, even solitary masturbation.

A number of factors help explain why poppers became a mass phenomenon among gay men:

• Poppers have been either legal or tolerated by the authorities. So long as they were labelled “room odorizers” and marketed only to gay men, the FDA looked the other way

• Poppers were affordable. A bottle could sell for as little as $2.99, a lot less than heroin, cocaine, or alcohol

• Poppers were assumed to be harmless. The name “poppers” sounds amusing, innocuous. There had been little word in the gay press about harmful effects.

But poppers do have harmful effects. They damage the immune system. They can cause severe or fatal anemia. They injure the lungs. Poppers have the potential to cause cancer. Poppers can cause death or brain damage from cardiovascular collapse or stroke.

Some scientists have drawn epidemiological links between the use of poppers and the development of AIDS, especially Kaposi’s sarcoma (or KS), an affliction of the blood vessels. At present, the nitrites-KS hypothesis is as strong as any.

Beginning in 1981, San Francisco activist Hank Wilson, founder of the Committee To Monitor Poppers, regularly sent out packets of medical reports to the gay press. These were ignored. In 1982 a scientist sent a letter to The Advocate, describing research which demonstrated that amyl nitrite strongly suppresses the immune systems of mice. The Advocate’s editor said the magazine weren’t interested.

Still in 1982, the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco ran the longest editorial in its entire history, attacking Wilson for criticizing poppers. In 1983, at the request of a poppers manufacturer, The Advocate ran a series of advertisements (“Blueprint For Health”) which claimed that government studies had exonerated poppers from any connection to AIDS. For most of the gay press, advertising dollars were more important than looking critically at a dubious product.

I began collaborating with Wilson in 1983. We published a series of pamphlets and, in 1986, a little book, Death Rush: Poppers And AIDS. In 1983 I spoke out publicly against poppers for the first time at a meeting of the New York Safer Sex Committee.

I was savagely attacked on the spot by a gay physician, the late Stephen Caiazza, who waved his arms and screamed at me like a maniac.

Now it’s 2000, more than 10 years after poppers were outlawed in the US, and not much has changed. Poppers are no longer advertised in the mainstream gay press. But a new market has sprung up on the Internet; many gay porn sites also sell bottles of nitrite mixes often advertised as leather cleaner. The largest circuit party of all, the Black And Blue, held annually in Montreal, has “Z-Best Leather Cleaner” as a major sponsor. I would not recommend using this product on your leather jacket.

I find this deceitful advertising sleazy. We know perfectly well that poppers are not room odorizers, aromas, video head cleaners or leather cleaners. They are chemicals that provide a quick buzz and have harmful side effects.

Banning poppers isn’t the answer. But their use can be harmful and needs to be separated from the gay cultural identity.