Kyle Walker, the Tottenham Hotspur and England right-back, has apologised for being photographed apparently taking nitrous oxide, or laughing gas – the only drug which you take by repeatedly sucking on a balloon. After the inevitable won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children backlash, he issued a statement saying: “Now I know the health risks, it was poor judgment on my part. I won’t be doing this again and hope that no one else is influenced into putting their health at risk by my actions.”
I’m sure we can all agree with that. Mr Walker regularly engages in a risky activity which causes hundreds of deaths a year. What’s more, he glamorises it, and makes money from it. Yes: Mr Walker is a professional footballer.
You are, by my admittedly rough but extremely conservative estimate, several times more likely to die playing football than you are taking “hippy crack”, as nitrous oxide is known by absolutely nobody apart from headline writers. According to Russell Newcombe and Sally Woods of Liverpool John Moores University, about 1 in 100,000 football players will die every year because of the sport. According to our own story in July, about 350,000 people take nitrous oxide every year. Last year, a student, Joseph Benett, died after taking what he believed to be laughing gas, but which appears to have been butane and other poisonous gases. That appears to be the only N2O-related death in the last few years in Britain, and it wasn’t even actually N2O. Newcombe and Woods class laughing gas as “Level 8, minimum risk (annual mortality rate of over one in 50 million – effectively zero)”.
These numbers might be a bit off, but however you look at it, taking actual laughing gas is much less likely to kill you than playing football is. It’s probably not very good for you if you do it lots – it interferes with vitamin B uptake, I think, so heavy use ends up causing nerve damage. Mind you, heavy use of football can lead to ruined tendons, and ankle and knee joints like soggy cardboard.
None of this is to say that you should quit football and take up laughing gas. Football is good for you. Despite the small risks it will, I expect, significantly increase your life expectancy simply because regular exercise does. Laughing gas has no such benefits. But nor is it going to kill you.
The moral panic, however, might do. This has happened before – as a relatively safe drug, like Ecstasy or mephedrone, is made illegal, other, untried ones reach the market, and some of them are much more dangerous. I don’t know how plausible it would be to crack down on laughing gas use, but if the Government tries, we might find more people taking balloons full of butane or other far less pleasant gases.
So, Kyle Walker, don’t worry about the health risks, because there essentially aren’t any (unless you’re huffing balloons every day, which would slow you down in training through simple wind resistance, I imagine). Do be careful, though, with all that football. That’s the silent killer. Won’t somebody think of the children?