Remember when bottled water was far-fetched? Helen Wilkinson in New York experiences a natural high, coming soon to Britain
ONCE people went to the seaside for fresh air and fun. Now it's pure oxygen that increasing numbers of New Yorkers are demanding, courtesy of an oxygen bar. And the first stop in Britain for this Big Apple fad is Blackpool.

The medical benefits of high-grade oxygen have been known for some time - the US Food and Drug Administration approves of oxygen therapy for the treatment of 13 specific problems including migraine and headaches - but now the concept is being taken a stage further. Oxygen is being marketed as an essential adjunct to the modern urban lifestyle, hailed for its ability to strengthen the body's immune system, eliminate fatigue, improve concentration, and boost energy.

The trend kicked off in America when New York's first oxygen bar, The Oxygen Station, opened seven months ago. Yesterday the Blackpool business Finns said it would seek clearance from environmental health officials to offer oxygen as a "pollution-beating, stress-relieving, pure and natural high".

In search of this natural high I took myself off to The Oxygen Station. For 20 minutes I sat in a reclining chair, sipped herbal tea, and listened to New Age music while oxygen was pumped from a canister through tubes inserted in my nostrils. All for a mere $20!

The Oxygen Station has positioned itself at the cutting edge of New Age activities, promising a plethora of benefits. Its unobtrusive location (it's tucked away in the Healing Centre on 57th Street, near Central Park) and its minimalist decor provides a perfect environment to recharge the batteries, rejuvenate and escape the worst excesses of urban life. You can even have oxygen facials while you breathe in the O2.

Regular partakers at the centre include authors who are suffering writer's block, businessmen who need a pep up before big meetings, athletes intent on improving their performance and - as you would expect - the "beautiful people", actors and models who believe oxygen will slow down the ageing process, improve complexions, and increase hair and nail growth (not to mention their libidos). The Station is also more than happy to take oxygen to clients. Private oxygen parties and corporate brainstorm weekends are not unheard of - and are a big growth market.

As the only place offering this service in the city, there is an understandable reluctance on the part of The Station's managers to name drop. But Kirsty Allen and Woody Harrelson have both extolled the virtues of oxygen therapy, and the celebrity gym Radu Physical Culture, where Cindy Crawford works out, provides bottled oxygen on demand along with vegetable and fruit juices.

New York's cool merchants - the people whose job it is to spot hip trends - have been quick to identify the appeal of oxygen to young urban professionals who work and play hard. They predict that oxygen bars will rapidly spring up throughout America.

The Oxygen Station is keen to position itself as a cool hangout if you want to get high, but don't want the harmful effects of alcohol or drugs. In the city that never sleeps, this could be a major selling point.

Science fiction has long depicted societies where environmental devastation means that the simple necessities of life - like air and water - come at a price. The first sign that this vision might become reality came in the Eighties when air quality deteriorated to dangerously low levels in some Japanese cities. Booths - nicknamed oxygen stations - appeared on street corners, letting commuters top up their oxygen quotas en route to work.

But whether New York's Oxygen Station will prove to be "the bar of the future" remains to be seen. It will almost certainly need a redesign to make it a more enticing prospect for the more ambivalent consumer. Price may also be an issue. With oxygen costing $1 a minute, alcohol is likely to remain the drug of preference for the vast majority. (The Blackpool bar is pricing itself much more competitively at a mere pounds 2 for 20 minutes.)

But these are minor considerations. Although I can't quite see hordes of Manhattanites (or Blackpool promenaders, come to that) walking into their local bar, ordering a bottle of O2, and sitting around with tubes up their nostrils, if oxygen bars are marketed as the ultimate in urban chic and sophistication, they just might catch on. After all, buying oxygen seems less far-fetched if you consider how quickly buying bottled water became the norm among the affluent in the Eighties.

When Village Voice starts to advertise 12-step programmes for oxy addicts, we'll know this trend has well and truly arrived.