When a national survey of high school seniors this year showed decreased use of marijuana and cocaine, the results were trumpeted as a sign of flagging interest among youths in dangerous drugs. But reports of the annual survey generally failed to note that it also documents a steady rise in young Americans' abuse of inhalants - everything from spray paint and gasoline to nail polish remover and typewriter correction fluid.
A growing number of children, some barely of school age, are ``sniffing'' and ``huffing'' their way to a very dangerous high. Although precise numbers are elusive, experts estimate that each year dozens of youngsters die as a result of these practices. Others are left with permanently damaged nervous and respiratory systems.
For many thousands more, the cheap and easily accessible substances are becoming the newest ``gateway'' substances leading to use of illegal drugs.
Drug-abuse experts say the problem of inhalant abuse has been ignored nationally because it is perceived as largely a Hispanic problem concentrated in the Southwest. There is now mounting evidence, however, that sniffing and huffing - breathing in large gulps of solvent, paint, or glue fumes through the mouth - is cutting across racial and regional lines.
``This used to be a problem of the barrios,'' says Jos'e M'arquez, statewide minority coordinator for Texans' War on Drugs, a private organization, ``but it's a youth problem with no barriers now.'' Mr. M'arquez, who has been working to fight inhalant abuse in Texas since 1976, says he has recently given education and prevention seminars in Kentucky, Illinois, and Michigan. He will soon give one in Minneapolis, where social workers with Indian youths report an ``explosion'' of the problem.
``Much of the antidrug campaign has been directed at cocaine and had a middle-class, Anglo orientation,'' says D.Dwayne Simpson, a psychology professor at Texas A&M University. ``It's had very little effect on inhalants.''
But with 1 in 5 high school seniors reporting some experience with inhalants - up from 1 in 9 in 1981 - those experts say they hope the problem will gain attention.
The abuse of solvent-based or aerosol products is not new. But decades of mostly unsuccessful attempts to make products unattractive or unavailable to abusers have taught government officials and manufacturers that there are no easy solutions.
``The general feeling finally became that this was not really a product problem, but a people problem,'' says Robert Giovachinni, a vice-president of Gillette Corporation, which manufactures aerosol products. Manufacturers of abused products formed the Solvent Abuse Foundation for Education (SAFE) in 1984. The Washington-based foundation spends about $1 million annually to develop and support solvent-abuse education and prevention. Mr. Giovachinni, who is chairman of SAFE, says the organization aims at fourth- and fifth-graders, supporting education among parents, teachers, and students.
The fact that most homes stock common inhalants in cabinets and closets makes efforts to educate children about their danger all the more crucial, drug experts say. ``Little kids may not know how to get marijuana and cocaine,'' M'arquez says, ``but I can tell you from my experience in second- and third-grade classes across Texas that they sure know where to find glue and spray paint - and how to abuse them.''
A spring survey of Grades 7 through 12 by the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse found that, unlike other drugs, inhalants had been tried by more students the younger they were.
Survey analysts say they believe that a high dropout rate among inhalant abusers, plus a surge in inhalant use among small children over the past five years, accounts for the higher rate among younger children.
A recent study conducted by Professor Simpson that observed young inhalant abusers for four years confirms what many drug counselors report: Inhalant abuse often precedes use of illegal drugs and alcohol.
The Texas A&M study found that one-third of inhalant abusers were injecting harder drugs four years later, while nearly one-half were using alcohol in amounts equivalent to five cans of beer a day.
The ``gateway'' aspect of inhalant abuse was exhibited recently by several kids at a youth-services center here.
Angel Fuentes, 13, says she first ``sniffed'' spray paint when she was 11. She moved on to Liquid Paper, a typewriter correction fluid, or ``whatever other people had.'' But she says sniffing ``really doesn't do nothing for me no more,'' so she now smokes marijuana.
Trudy Soto, also 13, says a girlfriend taught her to sniff when she was 12. Within a year she had tried marijuana, cocaine, and ``crank,'' or speed. Recently Trudy's friend had an overdose on Liquid Paper and was rushed to a hospital. Now the friend ``doesn't do no drugs, not even beer,'' Trudy says.
But Trudy is not ready to quit. ``I want to stop later on, but not right now,'' she says.
One who did quit is Genie Estrada. Her first experience was sniffing a gasoline-soaked rag on a school bus. From there,friends persuaded her to try spray paint and Liquid Paper. ``It made me forget a lot of things,'' says the 16-year-old, who, like many of these kids, admits to having ``problems at home.''
Soon Genie was stealing to support the habit. She then began having withdrawal symptoms - pains in her stomach and legs, near inability to walk, red eyes - and decided if she didn't want to die or go to jail, she'd better quit.
Now pregnant, Genie is off drugs. But authorities report so many pregnant adolescent girls using inhalants that they now have a name - fetal solvent syndrome - for the symptoms exhibited by some newborns of inhalant-abusing girls.
Drug-education workers say the physical ravages, and even death, that sniffing and huffing can lead to are, unfortunately, among the best tools they have for combatting inhalant abuse.
News reports of a 17-year-old boy who died near Austin in June from inhaling Liquid Paper persuaded 14-year-old Fred Torres to stop sniffing. ``Hearing about that kid got me thinking, and got me off it,'' he says.