Article Text

Download PDFPDF

Does perception of drug-related harm change with age? A cross-sectional online survey of young and older people
  1. Survjit Cheeta1,
  2. Adem Halil1,
  3. Matthew Kenny1,
  4. Erin Sheehan1,
  5. Roxanne Zamyadi1,
  6. Adrian Lloyd Williams1,
  7. Lucy Webb2
  1. 1 Department of Life Sciences, College of Health and Life Sciences, Brunel University London, Uxbridge, UK
  2. 2 Substance Use and Addictive Behaviour (SUAB) Research Group, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Survjit Cheeta; survjit.cheeta{at}


Objectives To investigate how young and older people perceive the harms associated with legal and illegal drugs.

Design Cross-sectional study: adults aged 18–24 years versus 45+ completed an online survey ranking the perceived harms associated with 11 drugs on 16 drug-related harm criteria.

Setting Online survey.

Participants 184 participants aged 18–24 years (113 female: mean age 21: SD 1.3) and 91 participants aged 45+ (51 female: mean age 60: SD 8.5).

Main outcome measures ‘Perception of drug-related harms’: This was measured using a rating scale ranging from 1 (no risk of harm) to 4 (high risk of harm). Participants were also asked about sources which informed their perception on drug-related harms as well as their own personal self-reported drug experiences.

Results Of the illegal drugs, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine were rated as the most harmful and cannabis was rated as the least harmful. Alcohol and tobacco were also rated as less harmful. The results showed that perceptions of drug-related harms were inconsistent with current knowledge from research on drugs. Furthermore, perceptions on drug harms were more conservative in the 45+ group for a number of illegal drugs and tobacco. However, the 45+ age group did not perceive alcohol as any more harmful than the younger group.

Conclusions This survey demonstrates that the greatest misperception was in relation to alcohol-related harms which did not change with age. In order to minimise harms, this misperception needs to be addressed through education and policies that legislate drug use.

  • alcohol
  • young
  • risk perception
  • drug related harms
  • public health

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


  • Contributors SC and LW were responsible for study design and AH, MK, RZ and ES for data collection. SC, ALW, AH, MK, RZ and ES analysed the data. SC, ALW, AH, MK, RZ and ES drafted the paper. All authors: read, commented on and approved of the final manuscript.

  • Funding This project was funded through Brunel University London.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Ethics approval The present research received ethical approval from the College of Health and Life Sciences Ethics Committee, Brunel University London

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement Extra data can be extracted by emailing the corresponding author SC.