Monitoring the Future 2019: Attitudes Toward Alcohol and Drug Use Among Young Adults

This entry was posted in Addiction, Questions on .

We recently published an article called “Monitoring the Future 2019: Alcohol and Drug Use Among Adults Age 18-60.” In that article, we presented the latest data on trends in alcohol and drug use for specific age categories of adults in the U.S. The data we offered was unique in that it was the first year the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey reported data for specific adult age groups. In previous years, data for people age 18 + appeared in age ranges, such as 18-25, 26-35, 35-54, 55-64, and 65 +. However, in 2019, the report included data for people age 19-20, 21-22, 23-24, 25-26, 27-28, and 29-30. They also included data for people age 35, 40, 45, 55, and 60.

Data reported at this level of detail enables public health officials, policy makers, and clinicians to understand who may be at risk of problem alcohol and drug use, where to focus resources, how to prioritize awareness efforts about the dangers of alcohol and drug use, and who most needs access to support and treatment for alcohol and/or substance use disorder (AUD/SUD).

This article follows up on our first article and discusses data from another unique feature of the 2019 MTF: an age-specific analysis of trends in attitudes toward alcohol and drug use among young adults. The 2019 MTF asked questions like:

Do you think…

…smoking marijuana every day is harmful?

using heroin regularly is harmful?

…drinking 4-5 alcoholic beverages almost every day is harmful?

Answers to these questions help us determine the success of awareness campaigns and public health initiatives around alcohol and drug use among young adults. Data on attitudes toward alcohol and drugs is important in light of the ongoing opioid epidemic, the trend toward marijuana legalization, and changing public opinion about treatment for alcohol and substance use disorder.

About the Monitoring the Future Survey

The MTF is created and administrated by public health researchers at the University of Michigan with the support of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The Michigan team distributes, receives, and assesses detailed questionnaires from over fifty-thousand college students and young adults each year about their drug and alcohol use.

Trends in Attitudes Toward Alcohol and Drug Use, 1999-2019

In 2019, researchers gave special attention to the questions we mention above – those designed to gather information on the attitudes and personal opinions about alcohol and drug use – and reported responses for specific age groups for young adults age 18-30.

We’ll concentrate on the data that describes attitudes toward alcohol and drug use that can lead to alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder. By that, we mean we’ll leave out answers to questions such as:

Do think there’s great risk of harm in…

…trying marijuana once or twice?

…trying amphetamines once or twice?

…drinking one or two alcoholic beverages a day?

Instead, we’ll offer the data on responses to questions about regular use and daily use for drugs, and questions about heavy daily alcohol use. Our goal is to provide an understanding about common attitudes towards levels of use that behavioral health and addiction experts would call high-risk. This first set relates to the perceived risk of regular use of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines, as well as perceived risk of consuming 4-5 alcoholic beverages nearly every day.

Here’s what the researchers found:

Perceived Risk of Harm: % Answering “Great Risk”

Regular Marijuana Use

  • Age 18
    • 1999: 57.4
    • 2019: 30.5
    • Change: (-) 26.9
  • Age 19-22
    • 1999: 55.3
    • 2019: 23.5
    • Change: (-) 31.8
  • Age 23-26
    • 1999: 60.1
    • 2019: 21.8
    • Change: (-) 38.3
  • Age 27-30
    • 1999: 66.1
    • 2019: 21.2
    • Change: (-) 44.9

Regular Cocaine Use

  • Age 18
    • 1999: 85.8
    • 2019: 74.7
    • Change: (-) 11.1
  • Age 19-22
    • 1999: 88.5
    • 2019: 85.7
    • Change: (-) 2.8
  • Age 23-26
    • 1999: 92.7
    • 2019: 87.6
    • Change: (-) 5.1
  • Age 27-30
    • 1999: 92.4
    • 2019: 87.6
    • Change: (-) 4.8

Regular Heroin Use

  • Age 18
    • 1999: 89.9
    • 2019: 81.2
    • Change: (-) 7.7
  • Age 19-22
    • 1999: 92.8
    • 2019: 91.1
    • Change: (-) 1.7
  • Age 23-26
    • 1999: 93.7
    • 2019: 95.3
    • Change: (+) 1.6
  • Age 27-30
    • 1999: 93.7
    • 2019: 95.3
    • Change: (+) 1.6

Regular Amphetamine Use

  • Age 18
    • 1999: 66.4
    • 2019: 48.4
    • Change: (-) 18
  • Age 19-22
    • 1999: 72.4
    • 2019: 59.7
    • Change: (-) 12.7
  • Age 23-26
    • 1999: 78.7
    • 2019: 57.2
    • Change: (-) 21.5
  • 27-30
    • 1999: 82.6
    • 2019: 61.9
    • Change: (-) 20.7

Consume 4-5 Alcoholic Beverages Nearly Every Day

  • Age 18
    • 1999: 61.1
    • 2019: 59.7
    • Change: (-) 0.4
  • Age 19-22
    • 1999: 69.9
    • 2019: 67.3
    • Change: (-) 2.6
  • Age 23-26
    • 1999: 72.8
    • 2019: 74.9
    • Change: (+) 2.1
  • Age 27-30
    • 1999: 75.1
    • 2019: 72.1
    • Change: (-) 3.0

Before we move on to the next set of data, let’s put words to something we can all see in the numbers: in almost every age group for almost every drug, including alcohol, the perceived risk of harm for regular use decreased over the last twenty years. The most significant decreases were in attitudes toward daily marijuana use, where the percentage of people who think regular marijuana use poses “great risk” dropped by and average of over 35 percent over the four age groups identified.

Perceived Risk of Heroin Use

With regards to drugs, the only increases in perceived risk measured between 1999 and 2019 were found in the attitudes of people age 23-26 and people age 27-30 toward regular heroin use. For those age groups, those who thought daily heroin use posed a “great risk” increased 1.6 percent. We should note, however, that most people – well over 90 percent at all age groups – understand that regular heroin use presents a “great risk.”

Perceived Risk of Heavy Alcohol Use

Attitudes toward consuming 4-5 alcoholic beverages almost every day stayed relatively stable over the past twenty years, with the largest decrease (3.0 percent) in perceived risk of harm occurring in people age 27-30, and the only increase in perceived risk occurring in people are 23-26 (2.1 percent). We should also note here that well over half of the people surveyed thought consuming 4-5 drinks almost every day presents a “great risk.” The groups who saw the least harm in consuming that much alcohol were college-age (18-22) – an age group well-known for excess drinking. This data confirms what clinicians and laypeople alike know: college age people are at increased risk of developing alcohol use disorder – and one contributing factor is the high level of peer acceptance of heavy drinking.

Alcohol and Drug Use: Approve or Disapprove?

Now we’ll present a second set of data. This set includes answers to simple “Approve/Disapprove” type questions, such as “Do you approve or disapprove of regular marijuana use?” Again, we present the data for 1999 and 2019 in order to identify trends over time.

Here’s what the researchers found:

Approval/Disapproval of Drug Use: % Answering “Disapprove”

Regular Marijuana Use

  • Age 18
    • 1999: 78.6
    • 2019: 63.4
    • Change: (-) 15.2
  • Age 19-22
    • 1999: 84.5
    • 2019: 60.7
    • Change: (-) 23.8
  • Age 23-26
    • 1999: 86.1
    • 2019: 56.9
    • Change: (-) 29.2
  • Age 27-30
    • 1999: 90.0
    • 2019: 56.5
    • Change: (-) 33.5

Regular Cocaine Use

  • Age 18
    • 1999: 94.9
    • 2019: 96.5
    • Change: (+) 1.6
  • Age 19-22
    • 1999: 97.6
    • 2019: 95.2
    • Change: (-) 2.4
  • Age 23-26
    • 1999: 98.3
    • 2019: 96.1
    • Change: (-) 2.1
  • Age 27-30
    • 1999: 96.8
    • 2019: 97.6
    • Change: (+) 0.8

Regular Heroin Use

  • Age 18
    • 1999: 96.6
    • 2019: 97.3
    • Change: (+) 0.7
  • Age 19-22
    • 1999: 88.5
    • 2019: 96.3
    • Change: (+) 7.8
  • Age 23-26
    • 1999: 98.8
    • 2019: 99.1
    • Change: (+) 0.3
  • Age 27-30
    • 1999: 98.7
    • 2019: 98.4
    • Change: (-) 0.3

Regular Amphetamine Use

  • Age 18
    • 1999: 93.7
    • 2019: 94.4
    • Change: (+) 0.7
  • Age 19-22
    • 1999: 97.5
    • 2019: 90.4
    • Change: (-) 7.1
  • Age 23-26
    • 1999: 97.0
    • 2019: 93.1
    • Change: (-) 3.9
  • 27-30
    • 1999: 98.2
    • 2019: 90.8
    • Change: (-) 7.4

Consume 4-5 Alcoholic Beverages Nearly Every Day

  • Age 18
    • 1999: 86.9
    • 2019: 91.5
    • Change: (+) 4.6
  • Age 19-22
    • 1999: 92.4
    • 2019: 92.9
    • Change: (+) 0.5
  • Age 23-26
    • 1999: 95.1
    • 2019: 92.2
    • Change: (-) 2.9
  • Age 27-30
    • 1999: 97.2
    • 2019: 89.5
    • Change: (-) 7.7

This data gives us more to talk about. Overall, we’re encouraged by the fact that most people – meaning over 86 percent, and in most categories, well over 90 percent – disapprove of regular use of cocaine, heroin, and amphetamine. Most people also disapprove of consuming 4-5 alcoholic beverages nearly every day. We’re encouraged by those numbers because they tell us most people don’t approve of a level of use of alcohol or drugs that increases risk of developing alcohol or substance use disorder.

However, we also see a significant decrease in disapproval of regular marijuana use. We understand that attitudes toward marijuana use are changing in the U.S. This is likely related to the movement toward legalization, and the general trend toward seeing marijuana as less harmful, overall, than most other drugs of misuse, including alcohol. With that said, we want to remind everyone that the misuse or disordered use of marijuana can lead to significant physical, mental, and emotional problems.

Awareness: A Majority of People Understand the Risks

The data we present above is interesting on several levels. First, it attaches numbers to questions we typically think of as subjective and unquantifiable. While it’s true that we can’t crawl inside everyone’s head to understand exactly what they think when they say “great risk” or “disapprove,” we can get a good idea simply by counting up the number of responses in each category for each age group and each drug. Second, though the data shows that the perception of the severity of risk of drug and alcohol use has decreased over the past twenty years, the majority of young adults in the U.S. still have a clear understanding of the risks and harms related to the various drugs discussed.

For instance, a significant majority of respondents disapprove of and view the regular use of heroin, cocaine, and amphetamine as posing a “great risk” to their health and wellbeing. That’s good news. Also, a significant majority of respondents disapprove of and view the consumption of 4-5 drinks almost every day as posing a “great risk” to their health and wellbeing. This is true for a majority of college age people as well: though fewer of them identify heavy drinking as “heavy risk,” as compared to the other age groups, around 90 percent of college age people disapprove of heavy drinking.

Finally, our takeaway – and what we see as the general takeaway – from this data is the changing attitudes toward marijuana use. Across the board, between 1999 and 2019, the number of people who view regular marijuana use posing a “great risk” to their health and wellness decreased by an average of 35 percent, and the number of people who disapprove of regular marijuana use decreased by an average of 25 percent.

How will this change in public attitudes toward marijuana use affect rates of cannabis use disorder in the coming years?

Time will tell.