Testing the validity of national drug surveys: comparison between a general population cohort and household surveys

Hannah Charles*, Jon Heron, Matthew Hickman, Jamie Brown, Lindsey Hines

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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Background and Aims: There are concerns that national population-based estimates of illicit drug use are underestimated. We investigated this by comparing estimates of illicit substance use at age 24 from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) with a birth cohort (Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, ALSPAC) and by comparing the Smoking and Alcohol Toolkit Studies (STS/ATS) to ALSPAC. 

Design: Cross-sectional household survey and cross-sectional data from one wave of a longitudinal birth cohort. 

Setting: England and Wales. 

Participants: Young adults aged 23–25 reporting on substance use in 2017 to CSEW (n = 1165), ALSPAC (n = 3389) and STS/ATS (n = 950). 

Measurements: Lifetime and past-year illicit drug use, smoking status and hazardous drinking at age 24. 

Findings: The 2017 CSEW estimate of lifetime illicit drug use was 40.6%, compared with 62.8% in ALSPAC (risk difference % [RD%] = 22.2%; 95% CI = 18.9–25.5%; P ≤ 0.001). The RD in lifetime use between ALSPAC and the CSEW was 23.2% (95% CI = 20.0–26.4%) for cannabis, 16.9% (95% CI = 14.4–19.4%) for powder cocaine and 24.8% (95% CI = 22.6–27.0%) for amphetamine. Past-year drug use was 16.4% in CSEW, compared with 36.7% in ALSPAC (RD% = 20.3%; 95% CI = 17.6–23.0%; P ≤ 0.001). For past-year substance use, the RD between ALSPAC and the CSEW was 15.4% (95% CI = 12.9–17.9%) for cannabis, 14.8% (95% CI = 13.0%–16.6%) for powder cocaine and 15.9% (95% CI = 14.5–17.4%) for amphetamine. Levels of current smoking were similar between STS (27.4%) and ALSPAC (29.4%). Hazardous drinking was substantially higher in ALSPAC (60.3%) than the ATS (32.1%; RD% = 28.2%; 95% CI = 24.8–31.6%; P ≤ 0.001). 

Conclusions: The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children provides one source of validation for measurements of drug use in government household surveys and indicates that illicit drug use may be underestimated in the Crime Survey for England and Wales.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2076-2083
Number of pages8
Issue number8
Early online date17 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: The UK Medical Research Council and Wellcome (102215/2/13/2) and the University of Bristol provide core support for ALSPAC. This publication is the work of the authors and H.C., J.H., M.H., J.B. and L.H. will serve as guarantors for the contents of this paper. CRUK-funded (C1417/A22962) Smoking and Alcohol Toolkit Study for sharing data on prevalence of smoking and hazardous drinking in England. The work was undertaken with the support of The Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer), a UKCRC Public Health Research Centre of Excellence. Joint funding (MR/KO232331/1) from the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Economic and Social Research Council, Medical Research Council, the Welsh Government and the Wellcome Trust, under the auspices of the UK Clinical Research Collaboration, is gratefully acknowledged. We also acknowledge funding from the NIHR School of Public Health Research, NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Behavioural Science and Evaluation and NIHR BRC at Bristol. The MRC and Alcohol Research UK (MR/L022206/1) funded data collection and also supports J.H. L.H. is funded by The Wellcome Trust.

Open Access: This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Publisher Copyright: © 2021 The Authors. Addiction published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Society for the Study of Addiction.

Citation: Charles, H., Heron, J., Hickman, M., Brown, J., and Hines, L. (2021) Testing the validity of national drug surveys: comparison between a general population cohort and household surveys. Addiction, 116: 2076– 2083.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/add.15371


  • ATS
  • STS
  • crime survey for England and wales
  • illicit drug use
  • population-based household surveys
  • young adults


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