As a baby-faced 22-year-old, I know I can expect to get carded every time I enter a bar or try to buy alcohol at the grocery store. Even when my similarly-aged friends aren't stopped by the bouncer or the waitress at brunch, I'll have to dig through my purse and fork over my driver's license, watching it get examined for the umpteenth time.
I can now expect the same rigmarole if I try to buy a can of whipped cream in New York.
Why is there an age limit for purchasing a dessert topping? Because the cans, also known as whippets, contain nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, so you can use them to get a brief high. And this prompted New York's State Assembly to pass one of the strangest bills of the drug war.
Since November 2021, it has been illegal for anyone under 21 to buy a canister of whipped cream in New York—though the law was little-known until a photo from an Albany convenience store alerting customers to the policy change started spreading online last week. Selling whipped cream canisters to anyone under 21 is a civil offense in the state, earning offenders a $250 fee for the first offense and a $500 fee for every subsequent offense.
"Used whippits piling up in our communities are not only an eye sore but also indicative of a significant nitrous oxide abuse problem. This law will help to protect our youth from the dangers of this lethal chemical while helping to clean up our neighborhoods," the bill's sponsor, Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., explained right after the bill passed. "Nitrous oxide is a legal chemical for legitimate professional use but when used improperly, it can be extremely lethal."
The evidence for the dangers of whippits is iffy. The main risk is asphyxiation from breathing in too much nitrous oxide and not enough air. But nitrous deaths almost always happen when people breathe in the gas through a mask, similarly to how laughing gas is administered at the dentist. Nitrous inhalers have also been known to die when using some other means to restrict their access to oxygen, such as putting a plastic bag over their head.
"When people pass out, they'll drop the balloon or whatever and start breathing air," Matthew Howard, an inhalant abuse expert at the University of North Carolina, told Vice in 2016. "If you've got a gas mask on, you won't."
Those who seriously abuse the substance can also develop subacute combined degeneration, a degeneration of the spinal cord due to vitamin B12 deficiency. But when treated quickly with a B12 injection, most affected by the condition will make a full recovery. Despite Addabbo's fearmongering, nitrous oxide rarely poses a long-term health risk—especially when inhaled from a whipped cream can rather than an industrial tank.
Further, whippits don't appear to be a particularly popular drug among teens. According to a 2015 study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, only 0.4 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds reported having done whippits in the past year. If used whipped cream cans are littering the streets of New York state, the under-21s aren't necessarily the ones to blame.
It is unclear how much this bill will impact whippit use. The small number of teenagers who actually want to get high off nitrous oxide will probably just purchase other household items that contain nitrous oxide canisters, such as sprayable cooking oil. Or they'll buy cheap nitrous oxide canisters online. And if you're one of the 99.6 percent of teens who don't get high this way? Then you just might need to pick a different ice cream topping.