What Poppers Tell Us About Pharmaceutic Governance

Joseph Jay Sosa explores the consumer history of poppers in the United States and its impact on contemporary public health governance

In the past decade, consumer regulatory agencies in United States, Canada, United Kingdom, European Union, and Australia have revisited the use of ‘poppers,’ amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite inhalants popular with gay men. Poppers may be experiencing a renaissance, exhibited by proliferating number of brands and flourishing cultural and media attention paid to them (see for e.g. Zmith 2021). “Poppers get dicks into butts, it’s as simple as that,” one U.S. vendor explained to me. But poppers do much more, and their changing uses (both practiced and merely proposed) speak to how their embodied effects have been culturally interpreted and institutionally administered differently over time. The peculiar (perhaps even queer) trajectory of nitrite inhalants over one hundred fifty years highlights the unusual trajectories within changing chemical regimes of living (Murphy 2017).

Poppers work by vasodilation—once sniffed, nitrite ions enter the blood stream, increasing the heart rate and relaxing smooth muscles. The effects are intense but fleeting. Most consumers report a brief pleasurable euphoria without mind-altering effects. But how those vasodilating effects are classified can have significant effects. Noting the virtual monopoly that public health has on poppers scholarship, Schwartz et al. (2019), observe how researchers draw on other illicit substances to understand poppers either as an inhalant or as a club drug. In the U.K., the operative question has been whether poppers affect the brain and could fall under the 2016 ban on psychoactive drugs (Ashford 2024). And the Nitrite Actions Group in Australia recently successfully petitioned the Australian government to shift its focus from restricting use to ensuring product safety (Nitrites Action Group 2019). Poppers are a troublesome object for biomedicine and consumer regulation. But rather than think of poppers as a gay curio that exists in between medical and regulatory taxonomies, we should think about how they trouble those taxonomies and the organization of knowledge and power that uphold them.

Butyl nitrite, the most popular compound in the United States, where I work, is neither classified as a medicine nor a drug. Epistemic confusion reigns over what poppers are, what they do, and to which substances they should be compared. This confusion exposes sexualized, racialized, and gendered politics over access to chemical pleasure and concern over chemical safety (Race 2009). As a field, the anthropology of pharmaceuticals has focused on how the political, market, and technocratic practices of the pharmaceutical industry shape the effects of pharmaceutic products take as much as their chemical properties (Sanabria and Hardon 2017). Since the 1970s, however, the pharmacological effects of poppers have been culturally and materially constructed largely outside of the infrastructure of the pharmaceutic industry. When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) restricted amyl nitrite to a prescription medication in 1969, gay men with backgrounds in medicine and pharmacology began producing butyl nitrite poppers to sell to gay men previously purchasing amyl nitrite over the counter (Reed 1979).

As gay butyl nitrite manufacturers sold poppers to gay consumers largely through the burgeoning gay press of the 1970s, gay men have circulated largely counterpublic knowledge about nitrites outside of the pharmaceutic industry (Sosa nd). How do the tensions between these counterpublic knowledges and parapharmaceutic regulatory structures shape what poppers do? And how might the pharmacological effects of poppers change if regulatory agencies incorporated gay men’s knowledge about nitrites? Sliding between different classifications, poppers might be grouped with other products—cosmetic or dietary supplements, for instance—that are both outside pharmaceutic regulation but also connected to it. Industry actors vaguely call such products “parapharmaceuticals.” Although the defining features of parapharmaceuticals are not well defined, the concept suggests a broad and uneven field of chemical production, classification, and consumption, the analysis of which would yield insights into moral valuations and power structures.

In the United States, poppers have largely been under the purview of the Hazardous Substances Act of 1960. There were no rules against its production, sale, or usage, but suggesting that it could be consumed would violate its code. This classification led poppers manufacturers to advertise their product using numerous euphemisms–– including leather and VHS cleaner or nail polish remover—to blend in with other products sold in gay venues. Although they couldn’t advise consumer to inhale poppers, manufacturers nevertheless advertised their “potent odors.” Butyl nitrite did eventually become reclassified in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, but enforcement remained relatively scant. Internally, regulators at the Consumer Product Safety Commission expressed concern that strict enforcement could push production further underground (see Postscript).

No longer a medicine, hardly enforced as a drug, and hovering in the nebulous category of hazard, the boundary maintenance around classifying poppers exposes moral equivocations assigned to its use. By comparison, David Herzberg (2020) has shown how addictive products were funneled into consumer markets via their incorporation into pharmaceutical markets and regulation under the FDA or into criminalized markets regulated through law enforcement. Herzberg contends that racism and poverty are the overwhelming reason that consumer markets get distinguished from criminal markets, and suffering patients versus irresponsible addicts. At the same time, although nitrites therapeutic value had been recognized in treating heart disease, their association with gay sex has been largely seen as recreational.

As Kane Race (2009) highlights about il/licit substance use, the refusal to see therapeutic value in pleasure turns the issue of queer drug use into a model of harm reduction (rather than say, “pleasure optimization”.) It can’t be understated that what biomedicine deems good for the body is grounded in normative, and in this case erotophobic, conceptions. Still more, poppers production and distribution have largely been circumscribed to predominantly white gay male economies. The industry rose through direct marketing in magazines targeted to affluent gay men with few men of color portrayed in their pages. And in today’s market, poppers are still considered a product for men, often not carried in feminist sex stores (Comella 2017). The story of poppers perceived harms reveals how white(ned) queer masculinity has been the central framework determining who are subjects of risk and pleasure.

In the late 1970s, as the U.S. poppers market was still forming, manufacturers’ aspirations to make their product a more everyday consumer product featured in how they promoted their product. Speaking to the Wall St. Journal in 1978, W. Jay Freezer, manufacturer of the popular Rush brand poppers, announced his hope that poppers would go mainstream enough to be sold in supermarkets (Sansweet 1977).  Anticipating the potential need for product testing, Freezer commissioned independent product testing of his product Rush. The resulting publication, Isobutyl Nitrites and Their Related Compounds, which tracked the acute effects of inhaling nitrites at different distances, was released through Freezer’s company Pharmex (the name being another indication of the industry’s aspirations).

The aspirations of some of the first businessmen in the industry never materialized. But gay men continue to assert their community-based knowledge around poppers. In 2021, USFDA issued a warning against ingesting or inhaling butyl nitrite poppers. Gay men took to Twitter/X to lambast USFDA for its lack of cultural knowledge and failure to consult gay male consumers. Gay men, for instance, know to how to hold poppers bottles to inhale vapors while avoiding contact with the skin. Through trial and error, they know when to inhale and how many hits will relax them, get them excited, or make them disoriented. And they know never to ingest poppers. Subsequent journalistic reporting revealed that the USFDA warning was issued after recording twenty cases, only six of which happened in 2020 or 2021, and which included blatant misuse of nitrites—including ingesting them.

Facing off against what might only be described as a moral panic enacted by USFDA, social media responses discounting the risks of poppers only tell half the story. My initial fieldwork with poppers consumers and manufacturers reveals more complicated positions. Vendors have had to cut off customers with addictive personalities. Consumers who use poppers in breath play must monitor blood oxygen levels. Manufacturers insist on the quality of their own product, but worry about the product quality of their competitors. These nuanced decisions made within gay male communities get lost when having to defend against poppers’ marginal position within broader pharmaceutic regulatory structures. We are left considering how could poppers be safer, more pleasurable, and perhaps even more available to other communities if gay men’s knowledge could find actionable institutional avenues.

Postscript

From the scant archival traces of poppers producers and regulators at the CPSC, observers in the 1980s and 1990s noted that federal agencies saw the poppers industry as insignificant enough to take a “hands off” approach. The fuller history will be developed in my current book project The Idea of Poppers.

About the author

Joseph Jay Sosa is Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College. An anthropologist and queer studies scholar, he focuses on aesthetics, affect, and political subjectivity in the United States and Brazil.

References

Ashford, Chris. 2024. “Queer Intimacies and Criminal Law: Queer Legal Praxis and the UK Poppers Ban.” In J. J. Fischel & B. Cossman (Eds.), Enticements: Queer legal studies. New York University Press. 233-253.

Comella, Lynn. 2017. Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hardon, Anita, and Emilia Sanabria. 2017. “Fluid Drugs: Revisiting the Anthropology of Pharmaceuticals.” Annual Review of Anthropology 46 (1): 117–32.

Herzberg, David L. 2020. White Market Drugs: Big Pharma and the Hidden History of Addiction in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Mack, Adam. 2021. “This Man Does Not Make Poppers.” BuzzFeed News. July 27.

Murphy, Michelle. 2008. “Chemical Regimes of Living.” Environmental History 13 (4): 695–703.

N.A. 2021. “Ingesting or Inhaling Nitrite “Poppers” Can Cause Severe Injury or Death.” United States Food and Drug Administration. July 15.

Nitrites Action Group. 2019. “A More Direct and Proportionate Response to Alkyl Nitrite Use.” Report Submitted to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Australia.

Race, Kane. 2009. Pleasure Consuming Medicine: The Queer Politics of Drugs. Durham: Duke University Press.

Reed, David. 1979. “The Multi-Million-Dollar Mystery High.” Christopher Street, 21–27.

Sansweet, Stephen J. 1977. “A New Way to Glow And Giggle, and Get A Headache Besides.” Wall Street Journal, October 10, 1977.

Sosa, Joseph J. forthcoming. “Decoding Poppers Ads: Queer Consumerism and Pharmaceutic Politics in the Poppers Industry.” Under Review at Queer Pasts. Alexander Street Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.