Childhood is becoming an alien concept for increasing numbers of Cambodia's young people as drug abuse surfaces among children as young as four.
"Drug use is a youth-driven phenomenon," said David Harding, technical adviser for Friends International, an NGO that has been working with Phnom Penh's street children since 1994.
"One simple factor makes Cambodia's drugs problem very concerning - the majority of the population is youth," he said. "People are just starting to comprehend the scale and magnitude of Cambodia's drugs problem," he said. "Solvent abuse is even less understood than abuse of illicit substances [but] NGOs are witnessing increasing glue use [on the streets of Phnom Penh]."
In a 2005 survey of 2,271 street kids conducted by Mith Samlanh, around 16 percent, or 352 of the respondents, admitted to sniffing glue.
The visible presence of young solvent abusers has forced increasing recognition of Cambodia's drugs problem.
"I have noticed over the last couple of years in Phnom Penh more visible inhalant use - glue sniffing in particular - than any other form of substance abuse," says Graham Shaw, technical adviser on drug abuse for the World Health Organization. "It can be seen openly on the streets whereas yama and heroin are more of a hidden issue. Glue sniffing is the most visible manifestation of Cambodia's drugs problem."
Experts agree that Phnom Penh's glue-sniffers are getting younger. Glue - a tube costs only 100 riel and is readily available in any market - has become an easy entry point to a life of drug dependency.
"What we have seen over the years is that the average age of users has dropped," Harding said. "Glue has become a substance abused almost exclusively by young children or teenagers. It has become the gateway drug."
As harder drugs such as yama and heroin become more accessible in Cambodia, children are moving across the critical juncture - from abuse of everyday solvents to using controlled drugs - at increasingly young ages.
"We have seen a drop in glue use among older street children," Harding said. "I think this is because drugs like amphetamines have aspirational effects - glue is kids' stuff. Since 1999 glue has gradually stopped being the most used substance on the streets - but it is now a way in for low-income youth. Solvent abuse is still very high in the under-15 age group."
Although older drug-using children may shun solvent abuse in favor of illicit drugs, the move away from glue-sniffing is dependent on the availability of harder substances, with glue remaining a popular last resort.
"Fluctuation in the supply of drugs - for example disruption in the availability of yama and heroin - [leads to] older street children accessing glue again," Harding said. "It doesn't stop them going into withdrawal but it keeps them high when they are suffering."
Solvents are not subject to fluctuations in supply in the same way yama and heroin may be. Glue is both legal and cheap - making it a very convenient substance to abuse.
"It is very inexpensive, it is easy to access, and it gives the maximum high for the minimum amount of money," Harding said.
But though the purchase of glue may be legal, young gluesniffers are frequently subject to police scrutiny.
"The kids who use drugs always make trouble - they harass and create disturbances at the local pagoda or school, says Kuoch Chamroeun, Meanchey district police governor. "However, I asked all the senior staff at the pagoda and the school director to come and meet me. I told them if they found glue sniffing kids making trouble they must inform the police immediately and the police will then go to arrest the kids and take them to the police station."
Arresting glue-sniffing children may take them off the streets, but Professor Ka Sunbaunat, dean of the University of Health Sciences, argues that understanding the reasons behind solvent abuse is a more beneficial approach.
"I don't think gathering teenage drug users together is the treatment - [chemical] treatment of a drug addiction is only one part of solving the problem," said Sunbaunat, who has conducted extensive research of solvent abuse among young Cambodians. "You need to know the cause to treat the sickness."
The causes of drug abuse are diverse and deep-rooted, Sunbaunat said. Over 95 percent of the children he works with say psycho-social trauma was the triggering factor for their drug use.
"School problems, family problems, community problems, domestic violence or violence within the community, and depression [can lead children to] turn to drugs as a means to cope" Sunbaunat said. "Often a lack of parenting can be a trigger - the parents are too busy to give psychological support to their teenage children. Teenagers need a lot of psychological support... they need guidance."
For Sanbaunat, it is important to recognize that although solvent abuse is highly detrimental to users' mental and physical health, many young addicts are damaged long before they begin sniffing:
"Even before the children [in the research group] started using glue they had serious physical and psychological problems stemming from poverty-stricken backgrounds, difficult home environments, lack of opportunities, poor hygiene and diet, lack of education and social discrimination," Sanbaunat said.
In Cambodia, where the CIA World Fact Book says 37.3 percent of the population is under the age of 14, increasing drug abuse as a response to difficult childhood circumstances is a worrying trend with serious ramifications for individuals and society.
"When [children] have no parenting and live in very stressful circumstances they can develop personality disorders [and] sometimes - because of starvation - they are driven to a life of crime," Sanbaunat said. "They become someone who society excludes, rejects and looks down upon."
A lack of adequate parental support leaves teenagers without the guidance they desperately need.
"Teenagers tend to turn to sources of support outside of the home - their peers," he said. "Peer pressure is a huge factor in drug abuse. Parents lack knowledge regarding how to raise children [and now] things have changed, society has many influences on children - especially now as communication is so broad teenagers can see the outside world in a way they couldn't before."
Medical professionals agree that the consequences of solvent abuse among young people - both physically and mentally - are horrific.
According to a report by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), "Inhalant abusers risk an array of devastating medical consequences. Prolonged sniffing of the highly concentrated chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can induce irregular and rapid heart rhythms and lead to heart failure and death within minutes."
Even if "sudden sniffing death," as this syndrome is known, does not occur, chronic solvent abuse leads to irreversible atrophy of the brain.
"Glue is a substance that is very toxic to the brain and neurological systems," Sanbaunat said. "The amount of chemicals they have inhaled from the glue can lead to serious brain damage - atrophy of the brain, especially the cortex. When there is brain damage - atrophy - there is nothing anyone can do to heal or help."
For young children, brain damage caused by solvent abuse severely impairs intellectual abilities, limiting the child's future prospects, Harding said.
"Long-term glue use causes serious and irreparable intellectual damage - it burns up the synapses like crazy; [solvent abusers] are literally making themselves more stupid," he said.
Shaw said the harmful impact of increasing solvent abuse among young people transcends the individual level and poses a major risk to Cambodia's future.
"It is only very recently that donors have started to register - through the HIV angle - the potential devastation drugs will cause to the socio-economic development of a country with 65 percent of its population under 25," he said.
Shaw said that difficult as it may be to treat young addicts, tackling the problem immediately is essential lest increasing drug abuse proves a harbinger of doom for Cambodia and its youthful population.
"If you invest the time and effort now into a glue sniffer, you will save a lot of money and hassle for society in the long run."
Harding said that providing treatment to Cambodia's young drug addicts requires a perceptual shift - from focusing on the drug abuse as a chemical problem to treating the underlying socio-economic causes of the problem.
"There are always needs, issues and problems in people's lives which have driven them to use drugs. Unless you address these underlying causational factors it doesn't matter how much you do, the individual will relapse."