The Last Breath

Ricardo Jasso is the executive director of Luz Social Services, a community-development organization whose primary purpose is to provide prevention and education services in the Latino communities of Tucson and Southern Arizona. The group is currently in the midst of a campaign to fight a commonly ignored problem: inhalant abuse. Jasso has been the director of Luz for nine years. He has worked in the area of substance abuse since 1976, while employed at a halfway house for recovering alcoholics. Jasso holds a master's in education and counseling and is serving his second term as a commissioner on the Tucson/Pima County Commission on Addiction Treatment and Prevention.

Tell me about Luz Social Services.

We are the only Hispanic substance-abuse organization in the city. ... We are very involved in helping other organizations develop a capacity to serve the population on the southside. (Luz is) known locally and nationally as having the reputation for developing Latino culturally competent programs. We work closely with different groups and individuals on the problem of substance abuse. ... We also offer a lot of training services to different nonprofits, government agencies, schools and neighborhood associations.

What type of training?

We offer training to enhance knowledge and skills in the areas of HIV, AIDS, gang prevention, life-skills training and youth violence. One of our biggest successes has been our parenting program. We have a 16-week curriculum for parents from the southside who would like to enhance their parenting skills. After they graduate, they become part of a parent support group. This group helps us with our inhalant abuse campaign.

What is that campaign?

One of the problems we saw here in the city was that nobody was addressing the problem of inhalant abuse. No one had any programs or resources. We conducted some research and found out the problem does exist in our city, but the problem is basically ignored. We were able to submit an application to the federal government ... and we were awarded a three-year grant to develop a public-awareness campaign to increase the awareness of inhalant abuse and to develop some programs. The campaign we have is called El Ultimo Suspiro.

Why do you think the problem of inhalant abuse has been ignored?

Inhalant abuse has always been the stepchild in the substance abuse subculture. Young people don't readily admit to using inhalants. It's not popular to say you are a huffer.

How does your campaign address the problem?

We have been training different providers and agency representatives in the community. Workshops let people know about the legal aspects of inhalants, the medical consequences, the basic information related to inhalants and where they can find resources for help if they have to. ... Parents have been given specific workshops on inhalants so they can talk to their kids about it. ... We are creating awareness in the business community by visiting stores that sell the products, giving them the city ordinance of what happens if you sell inhalants to a minor.

How prevalent is inhalant abuse among today's youth?

In 2002, at the national level, 5 percent of sixth graders used inhalants. That's a 1.5 percent increase from 2001. For eighth graders, the usage was 6.6 percent nationally and 10.3 percent in Pima county.

Why do you think it is higher here?

The access to the products is one thing. Poverty level is higher on the southside; there's a high dropout rate and a bad teenage pregnancy problem. Those are all risk factors that contribute toward the possibility of someone wanting to experiment or use inhalants. ... It's a very dangerous situation, because people can die from inhaling the products.

What types of inhalants are used?

There are more than 1,000 legitimate products that are available that can be used by youth to get high: liquid paper, markers, cooking spray, lighter fluid, shoe polish, glue, gasoline, spray paint...

What is the biggest misconception about inhalant abuse?

That it isn't treatable. Also, many think inhalant abuse is only prevalent among minority communities. It cuts across all socio-economic classes.

What should a parent do if he or she suspects a child is using inhalants?

We don't advise a parent to talk to the individual when they are high. Many kids react violently. Wait until the individual appears to be sober. Call a local agency, talk to a counselor and develop an intervention strategy.

What are your goals for El Ultimo Suspiro?

That the community will eventually acknowledge that inhalant abuse is a problem among children and youth in some parts of our community. We would like to see the community develop resources and programs for this problem.

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