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Addiction. 2001 Mar;96(3):445-58.

Social dimensions of adolescent substance use.

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  • 1The Violence Research Group, Department of Oral Surgery, Medicine & Pathology, University of Wales College of Medicine, Heath Park, Cardiff CF4 4XN, UK.



The aim of this study was to explore in detail the relationship between various social aspects of young people's lives and substance use and differences in the degree of influence exerted by the different social factors as a function of age. Design, setting, participants. The study was a survey of pupils aged 11-16 in a stratified sample of five English schools. Data from 4516 participants were obtained in relation to their cigarette, alcohol and illicit drug use and their contact with the police, perceived academic achievements and future expectations, religious beliefs, family structure, the importance of family versus peer opinions and suspension from school.


Cumulative, age-specific preferences of substance misuse were compared. Logistic regression was used to rank the various risk factors.


Substantial differences were found between substance users and non-users and the various risk factors being examined. For example, of those who had only been in trouble with the police, 18.8% used illegal drugs compared with 1.6% of those who had not had a police contact and who had no other risk factors. Many of these relationships were age-sensitive. For instance, the negative relationship between belief in God and illicit drug use became stronger as age increased (non-believers: y = 8.1886x - 9.16 R(2) = 0.9484; believers: y = 5.1514x - 8.08 R(2) = 0.9247). These results suggest that, within this sample of English adolescents, there was a strong relationship between substance use and the social factors examined. Although there were differences depending upon whether cigarette, alcohol or illicit drug use was being modelled, logistic regression indicated that the social factors could be ranked in the following order of importance: concurrent use of the second and third substances, having been in trouble with the police, perceived poor academic performance and low future academic expectations, a lack of religious belief, coming from a non-intact family, favouring peer over family opinion and having been suspended from school. Many of these relationships were age-sensitive with substance use peaking at age 15.


The models and relationships presented in this paper show that a constellation of behaviours are related to adolescent substance use. Also demonstrated is that behaviours cannot be considered in isolation, but need to be examined from an holistic or biopsychosocial standpoint. These relationships are complex and future research should consider not only causality of adolescent substance use, but also of the aetiology of the satellite behaviours.

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