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Alcohol most misjudged drug when it comes to harm

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People young and old underestimate the dangers of alcohol more than any other drug, shows a new study from Brunel University London.

Researchers looked at how people rate the level of harm caused by different legal and illegal drugs and whether older people think drugs are more dangerous than younger people do.

Drug-related deaths have seen a steady rise in England and Wales, with the highest recorded rate in 2016, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics.

This study gives the first clear picture of how much harm people from two different age groups think 11 commonly used drugs do to the user and to the community.

Younger and older people both rate heroin, crystal meth and cocaine as the most harmful illegal drugs, it found, which matches legal classification. But among both age groups, the greatest gap in knowledge was on alcohol-related harm.

“The misperception of alcohol-related harms among the young and older participants is concerning,” said study leader Dr Survjit Cheeta, “given that it is the most regularly used drug and thus carries the highest risk to health.”

The online survey asked 275 people in two age groups, 18–24 and 45–51, to rate 11 drugs on five types of harm: physical, psychological and social harm to users, plus physical and social harm to society. Using a drug harm scale designed by Prof David Nutt, who was an advisor to the government on drugs, people gave their perceptions about heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, ecstasy, crystal meth, LSD, amphetamine, cannabis, ketamine, alcohol and tobacco.

Asked about their own experiences, people were most likely to have used alcohol (63.2%), followed by cannabis (45.3%) and tobacco (44.2%). Some 29.5% said they regularly use alcohol, 7.4% regularly use tobacco and 5.3% use cannabis regularly. Just over 24% of young people said they’d tried ecstasy, and 1% called themselves poly-drug users, which means they take two or more together.

“In young people, it is necessary to increase awareness of the lethal effects of large amount of alcohol. It stops the part of our brain working that controls our breathing, which can lead to death” said Dr Cheeta.

“The harmful effects of drunk and disorderly behaviour at airports has recently been highlighted, prompting a government review of the ways in which alcohol is sold at airports. Altogether, there is a growing need for a better understanding of what constitutes the best policy approach to the growing health issue of drug use and related harm.

“What we do know is that any successful policy on alcohol has to acknowledge the normative nature of alcohol in society, and that for many people this is their main form of intoxication, source of pleasure and recreation.”

‘Does perception of drug related harm change with age? A cross-sectional on-line survey of young and older people’, by Survjit Cheeta, Adem Halil, Matthew Kenney, Erin Sheehan, Roxanne Zaymadi, Adrian Lloyd Williams and Lucy Webb, is published by BMJ Open and funded by Brunel University London.

Find out more about Psychology at Brunel.

Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268176
hayley.jarvis@brunel.ac.uk