Despite COVID-19, most young Canadian adults

A longitudinal study based in Montreal reveals little change in the consumption of alcohol, cannabis and nicotine among 24 to 33 year olds from before the pandemic to today.

Long lines outside liquor and pot outlets, telecommuters worried about their mental health, young parents trying to cope with home schooling – for two years now, the news has been full of people with struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

But have social isolation, financial hardship and psychological distress really led to an increase in the use of psychoactive substances such as alcohol, cannabis, cigarettes and e-cigarettes, as the media suggests?

In general, no, except among the less educated and socially isolated, according to a study led by Canada published in The Lancet Regional Health—Americas.

In this document, Marie-Pierre Sylvestre and Jennifer O’Loughlin, researchers at the CHUM Research Center affiliated with the University of Montreal (UdeM), examine the differences in the frequency of consumption of psychoactive substances among young adults, a group the more prone to anxiety and psychological distress.

Until now, no study had collected such data, let alone from the Canadian population.

“In general, weekly and daily substance use was quite stable in our sample of young Canadian adults,” said Sylvestre, first author of the study and professor in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at UdeM. “Far from the alarmist rhetoric of some media, our results do not show that the consumption of alcohol, nicotine or cannabis has increased dramatically during the pandemic.”

A cohort of nearly 1,300

Sylvestre based his research on the NDIT cohort (The Nicotine Dependence in Teens) set up between 1999 and 2000 by O’Loughlin, holder of the Canada Research Chair in the Early Determinants of Chronic Diseases from 2004 to 2021.

In total, they covered 1,294 young Canadians recruited in 1999 and 2000 at ages 12 or 13 in 10 secondary schools in the Montreal region. Pre-pandemic data on their use of cannabis, alcohol, cigarettes and e-cigarettes, as well as heavy drinking, were collected when participants were 20, 24 and 30 years old. During the pandemic, data was collected from December 2020 to June 2021, when they were 33 years old.

“In our study, we were able to observe that people with less education – secondary 5 – as well as adults living alone, were more likely to start or increase their consumption of psychoactive substances during COVID-19,” said Sylvestre. “We can reasonably assume that these more vulnerable groups may need more targeted attention and interventions to deal with the effects of the pandemic.”

She and O’Loughlin urge their fellow scientists to expand the follow-up of their current cohorts to collect data representative of a wider range of age groups and vulnerable subgroups. Among other things, this would allow them to determine whether changes in substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic translate into changes in health service use and mortality, they said.


About this study

A longitudinal study of changes in substance use from before to during the COVID-19 pandemic among young adultsby Marie-Pierre Sylvestre et al., was published on January 6, 2022 in The Lancet Regional Health—Americas. Funding was provided by the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

This study is the first in a series of three funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The next two will be published shortly and will address the topics of mental health and physical activity.

About the CRCHUM
The University of Montreal Hospital Research Center (CRCHUM) is one of the leading hospital research centers in North America. It aims to improve adult health through a continuum of research spanning disciplines such as basic science, clinical research and public health. More than 2,300 people work at the CRCHUM, including more than 500 researchers and more than 520 graduate students. @CRCHUM

About the University of Montreal

Deeply rooted in Montreal and dedicated to its international mission, the University of Montreal is one of the best universities in the Francophonie. Founded in 1878, the Université de Montréal now has 13 faculties and schools and, together with its two affiliated schools, HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, constitutes the largest center of higher education and research in Québec and one of the major hubs in North America. It brings together 2,400 professors and researchers and has more than 67,000 students.

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About Margaret Shaw

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