Death by inhalant abuse is so rare in Maryland that the medical examiner's office throws it into the catch-all classification known as "other."
But statistics from the state's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration indicate that the habit of sniffing butane, gasoline and other petroleum distillates has a small, but growing following.
Inhalants were cited by 5.3 percent of all admissions in the state's drug and alcohol treatment programs in 1991, said the administration's director, Rick Sampson, up from 3.3 percent in 1990.
Those who said they inhaled fumes from various products tended to be white (84.9 percent), male (82 percent) and young, with an average age of 18.
Nichelle Nicole Preston was just days from her 17th birthday when she died Thursday after inhaling butane.
The Glen Burnie High School cheerleader was one of the first in her group of friends to try the cheap, non-addictive high, said Bridgette A. Blank, a friend of Nichelle's.
"After you do it longer, you start blacking out for a few minutes, that's the stage Nikki was up to," said Miss Blank, 19, who was not home when Miss Preston died in her Brooklyn apartment. "I noticed her blacking out two weeks ago."
Usually, blacking out is what keeps someone from dying, said Dr. Burton D'Lugoff, medical director for the state's drug and alcohol administration. "The person becomes unconscious, slumps, and the thing they've been inhaling falls away," the doctor said, explaining that inhalants work by depriving the brain of oxygen. "If you cut off too much [oxygen], you die."
Miss Preston died of cardiac arrest, which the doctor said is consistent with inhalants, which can cause cardiac arrhythmia. She was the second Anne Arundel County resident to die this way in a year, according to the county Police Department. Before that, there had not been a similar death for 18 years.
Nationwide, there are no statistics on deaths from inhalant abuse, said Hugh Young, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Solvent Abuse Foundation for Education. But his organization, drawing on statistics from Britain, estimates there are at least 500 deaths a year in the United States.
"It tends to be regarded as episodic, a trend in a particular product. But if you look at the major categories of substance abuse, the only one that's rising is inhalants," said Mr. Young.
Whether it's butane, propane or the aerosol nozzle on a can of whipping cream, inhalants are said to produce a feeling of giddiness and euphoria. Mr. Sampson calls it a "spacey" effect.
But why is the drug gaining in appeal among teen-agers?
Officials at the drug and alcohol administration can only hypothesize.
"Because it's easily accessed, as opposed to illicit drugs," said Mr. Sampson. "It's called drug shifting. As some drugs become less acceptable, you see a portion of the population shift to something else."
Dr. D'Lugoff suggested that inhalants appeal to those who are not "resourceful" enough to seek out illegal drugs.
"It is a problem in rural poor areas and inner-city areas, Pigtown, other places like that," the doctor said. "Clearly, the people who do it become discombobulated for hours. They can't function in school. But some of these people did not function well to begin with."