Alcohol and illicit drug use in young workers

March 2021
Roche A, Kostadinov V, Chapman J, McEntee A. Have decreases in young workers’ risky drinking resulted in an increase in illicit drug use?. Health Promot J Austral. 2021;00:1–8.

Globally, there has been growing attention focussed on the changing patterns of youth drinking. There has been a worldwide trend for youth drinking to decrease overall as well as at risky levels. A wide range of potential explanatory factors have been examined to identify potential drivers of these changes, but no single explanation has been identified to-date. This paper examined whether the decrease in young people’s risky drinking may have resulted in an increase in illicit drug use. Thus far, this issue has not been addressed and in particular it has not been addressed in regard to young workers’ AOD use patterns.  A better understanding of the alcohol and drug use behaviours of this vulnerable, but accessible, population group is warranted.

To address this research question, an examination was undertaken of the National Drug Strategy Household Survey data for 2007 and 2016. The AOD use patterns of 15-24 year olds in the workforce were examined and compared to this age group in the population overall.

The study found that risky drinking had decreased among young workers during this time period, while low risk drinking had increased. This important change in drinking behaviours occurred among young workers overall and also among those who used illicit drugs. Generally, levels and patterns of ‘any drug use’ did not change over time but methamphetamine use decreased in the study period while cannabis and hallucinogen use increased. Drinking alcohol at risky levels remained associated with illicit drug use, as was being single and having high/very high levels of psychological distress. This cohort of young workers demonstrated a similar pattern of decreased alcohol use and fluctuating patterns of illicit drug use as found in broader Australian trends. In 2007, young workers who had used an illicit drug in the past 12 months were more likely to be male, metropolitan based, unmarried, with no dependent children, have high SES and low/moderate psychological distress. In 2016, the profile of young workers who used illicit drugs was statistically similar to 2007, with the exception of a significant increase in the proportion of unmarried workers, and a significant decrease in the proportion of male workers. One of the key findings of the study was a significant increase in illicit drug use amongst hospitality workers, with no similar significant change from 2007-2016 in other industry groups.

Importantly, reductions in risky drinking among this group over time where not found to be significantly associated with increased illicit drug use. This is an important and encouraging finding. However, risky drinking stills remains high among young workers and is strongly associated with illicit drug use.  Hence, health promotion and other intervention efforts are necessary that address risky drinking among young workers.