Shopowners can now be prosecuted for selling poppers - which are particularly popular with gay men - and the Department of Health is considering tightening the restrictions on their availability.
This follows a campaign by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) which argues that the chemical in poppers can kill and may be linked to a type of cancer that people with HIV sometimes develop.
The drug, which costs about pounds 4 for a small bottle contains the chemicals amyl, butyl or isobutyl nitrite. The side effects of inhaling it include a euphoric rush, enhanced orgasm, and the relaxation of the bowel muscles.
Poppers are available from sex shops as well as via mail order.
In June, the RPS made an important, and at the time unnoticed, break- through when it prosecuted a sex shop in Camden, north London, under the Medicines Act for selling a product that contains amyl nitrite, which should only be sold by a pharmacist because it is used as an antidote to cyanide poisoning and to treat angina. The retailer involved in the case was fined pounds 100.
Although most poppers contain butyl and isobutyl nitrites, which are not banned under the Medicines Act, the RPS believes the ruling effectively means that all poppers are outlawed.
Since then the society has been working with police forces and local authorities throughout Britain, including London, Blackpool and Edinburgh, in an attempt to stamp out the sale of poppers.
They have visited a number of sex shops and threatened to prosecute them if they continue to sell the drug.
Steve Lutener, the head of the Inspectorate and Enforcement Division of the RPS, said: "The prosecution is an important test case.
"We are now trying to educate people about the dangers and are dealing with complaints from the public.
"We have been visiting and sending letters to shops saying if they don't stop selling poppers we will take them to court."
He said that a least one person had died from the effects of the chemicals, which prevented the blood from carrying oxygen.
And he added that poppers may also be linked to the development of one of the early stages of full-blown Aids, the skin cancer Kaposi's sarcoma.
As well as gay men, the drug is also taken by teenagers. A survey of 752 pupils at schools in 1992 in Greater Manchester and Merseyside found that 22 per cent had taken poppers by the age of 16.
Meanwhile, the Medicines Control Agency, a Department of Health enforcement team, is investigating the manufacture and importation of the drug.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "We are looking at how we can enforce the law more stringently.
"One of the reasons that shops still sell it is that our enforcement team is very small and often if supplies are seized they are replaced in a few days."
She added that the enforcement agency only acted in response to complaints from the public.Reuse content