Do Most Youth Use Drugs?: How to Present Substance Use Statistics

Do Most Youth Use Drugs?: How to Present Substance Use Statistics

A wise person once said that “Statistics don’t lie, but liars use statistics,” while the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli first said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” 

So, the answer to the question, Do most youth vape e-cigarettes, or drink alcohol or use marijuana? depends on which statistics you choose and how you present them. 

I’m not referring to which epidemiological or population survey you select, although data may differ across type of, and geography targeted by various individual surveys.  

What I’m talking about is what are you attempting to communicate to others with your survey statistics and what data are you presenting? 

Presenting Worst-Case vs. Least-Case Statistics 

For example, if you are planning on presenting data to a group of prevention funders, professionals, parents or nearly any other group of adults, you probably want to present the worst-case scenario or the high end of use to illustrate that youth consumption is relatively widespread and therefore a problem.  

If, however, you are presenting information to youth or young adults, you’ll want to present the least-case scenario or underplay the use among their peers so as not to promote or support youths’ perceived overestimation (i.e., social norm belief) of peer use.  

How do you communicate these two, seemingly incongruent messages while remaining both truthful and accurate in your presentation of the statistics? 

When presenting “worst-case” or greatest prevalence of substance use, one suggestion is to use data from older adolescents or young adults who will have a larger percentage of users as compared to younger adolescents. 

In addition, it helps to use “ever use” or “lifetime use” data instead of current use statistics as these percentages and frequencies will be larger because they capture more users. 

If you want to highlight that most youth do not use drugs, then use data from younger adolescents and use “current use” or “30-day use” data or even “weekly use” data to highlight a smaller proportion of users.  

When Not to Present Worst-Case Statistics 

I regularly see and hear prevention and health specialists make the mistake of presenting worst-case statistics on e-cigarette, alcohol, marijuana and other substance use prevalence to young people.  

Communicating to youth and young adults that most or even a large percentage of young people use a substance will reinforce perceived social norms that “everyone is using” and increase their risk for use.  

This is why social norms campaigns attempt to present the least-case scenario on drug use statistics for youth and young adult populations to help correct typical perceptions overestimating peer substance use. 

It will take awareness and restraint for all of us to avoid our oftentimes go-to strategy of using worst-case statistics (e.g., prevalence or incidence) depicting substance use as common among youth. 

One preferrable alternative is to instead present substance use risk in terms of probability and severity of harm to salient and desired physical, mental and social aspirations among young people.  

For example, how a substance will harm their abiliy to live a healthy, happy and successful life now and in the future. 


Do most youth use drugs?  The answer to this question depends upon the youth sample and substance use statistics you choose to present, and of course your reason for presenting the statistics. 

Substance use statistics can be chosen to present a worst-case or least-case scenario, depending upon your targeted audience. 

Whenever presenting alcohol and drug use statistics to youth or young adults, however, only least-case scenario use statistics should be used to avoid influencing social norms and possibly increasing risk for actual use. 

Instead, present risk information to young people in terms of likely harm to their current and future wellbeing, performance and happiness. 

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