Interventions have been developed to reduce overestimations of substance use among others, especially for alcohol and among students. Nevertheless, there is a lack of knowledge on misperceptions of use for substances other than alcohol. We studied the prevalence of misperceptions of use for tobacco, cannabis, and alcohol and whether the perception of tobacco, cannabis, and alcohol use by others is associated with one’s own use.
Participants (n = 5216) in a cohort study from a census of 20-year-old men (N = 11,819) estimated the prevalence of tobacco and cannabis use among peers of the same age and sex and the percentage of their peers drinking more alcohol than they did. Using the census data, we determined whether participants overestimated, accurately estimated, or underestimated substance use by others. Regression models were used to compare substance use by those who overestimated or underestimated peer substance with those who accurately estimated peer use. Other variables included in the analyses were the presence of close friends with alcohol or other drug problems and family history of substance use.
Tobacco use by others was overestimated by 46.1% and accurately estimated by 37.3% of participants. Cannabis use by others was overestimated by 21.8% and accurately estimated by 31.6% of participants. Alcohol use by others was overestimated by more than half (53.4%) of participants and accurately estimated by 31.0%. In multivariable models, compared with participants who accurately estimated tobacco use by others, those who overestimated it reported smoking more cigarettes per week (incidence rate ratio [IRR] [95% CI], 1.17 [range, 1.05, 1.32]). There was no difference in the number of cigarettes smoked per week between those underestimating and those accurately estimating tobacco use by others (IRR [95% CI], 0.99 [range, 0.84, 1.17]). Compared with participants accurately estimating cannabis use by others, those who overestimated it reported more days of cannabis use per month (IRR [95% CI], 1.43 [range, 1.21, 1.70]), whereas those who underestimated it reported fewer days of cannabis use per month (IRR [95% CI], 0.62 [range, 0.23, 0.75]). Compared with participants accurately estimating alcohol use by others, those who overestimated it reported consuming more drinks per week (IRR [95% CI], 1.57 [range, 1.43, 1.72]), whereas those who underestimated it reported consuming fewer drinks per week (IRR [95% CI], 0.41 [range, 0.34, 0.50]).
Perceptions of substance use by others are associated with one’s own use. In particular, overestimating use by others is frequent among young men and is associated with one’s own greater consumption. This association is independent of the substance use environment, indicating that, even in the case of proximity to a heavy-usage group, perception of use by others may influence one’s own use. If preventive interventions are to be based on normative feedback, and their aim is to reduce overestimations of use by others, then the prevalence of overestimation indicates that they may be of benefit to roughly half the population; or, in the case of cannabis, to as few as 20%. Such interventions should take into account differing strengths of association across substances.