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SMAD. Revista eletrônica saúde mental álcool e drogas

versão On-line ISSN 1806-6976

SMAD, Rev. Eletrônica Saúde Mental Álcool Drog. (Ed. port.) vol.8 no.3 Ribeirão Preto dez. 2012




Profile of the use of legal and illegal drugs by college students at a private university


Perfil de la utilización de drogas lícitas e ilícitas por universitarios de una institución privada



Rizângela Lyne Mendes de FreitasI; Danelle da Silva NascimentoII; Rivelilson Mendes de FreitasIII; Gláucio Barros SaldanhaIV; Roberta Mayara de Moura RochaV; Pauline Sousa dos SantosV

IDoctoral student, Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, BA, Brazil. Assistant Professor, Faculdade Ateneu, Fortaleza, CE, Brazil
IIRN, Substitute Professor, Fundação Universidade Estadual do Piauí, Teresina, PI, Brazil
IIIPhD, Adjunt Professor, Universidade Federal do Piauí, Teresina, PI, Brazil
IVDoctoral student, Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, BA, Brazil. Professor, Faculdade Católica Rainha do Sertão, Quixadá, CE, Brazil
VUndergraduate student in Pharmaceutical Sciences, Universidade Federal do Piauí, Teresina, PI, Brazil





The study investigated the prevalence of legal and/or illegal drugs among students enrolled in Health Sciences Courses (HSC) at a university located in the Quixadá municipality, State of Ceará. The study was conducted through a questionnaire administered to 345 HSC students. The resulting profile was of single white females, ages 16-20 years old, unemployed, with a household income of 2-4 minimum wage salaries. The vast majority does not use any legal or illegal drugs. However, 39 and 16% use alcohol and cocaine, especially for the high, and mainly because of peer pressure during social events. The majority of the students self-medicate. The study suggests that alcohol and drug use within this population is alarming and that new surveys need to be conducted.

Descriptors: Epidemiology; Alcohol beverages; Street drugs; Students; Universities.


El trabajo investigó la superioridad del uso de drogas lícitas y/o ilícitas entre los universitarios de los Cursos de Ciencias de la Salud (CCS) de una institución de enseñanza superiora del municipio de Quixadá, Ceará. El estudio fue realizado por medio de un cuestionario aplicado entre 345 universitarios del CCS en cuestión. El perfil de los universitarios estudiados es de mujeres con banda etaria de 16 a 20 años, solteras, blancas, que no ejercen actividad remunerada con renta familiar de 2 a 4 salarios mínimos. La grande mayoría no hace uso de ninguna droga lícita o ilícita. Mientras, 39 y 16% hace uso del alcohol y de la cocaína, respectivamente, debido en especial a la sensación de alegría, y principalmente por la influencia de los amigos en eventos sociales. La mayoría de los universitarios practica automedicación. El estudio realizado sugiere que el problema de uso de drogas y alcohol en esa población es preocupante y nuevos levantamientos necesitan ser realizados.

Descriptores: Epidemiología; Bebidas alcohólicas;  Drogas ilícitas; Estudiantes; Universidades.




An estimated 200 million people worldwide use illegal substances, among which about 25 million could be considered as "problematic drug users". According to the world report on drugs, the most commonly used illegal drugs in the world are the marijuana, amphetamine-type stimulants, opioids, and cocaine. Worldwide, the illegal drug consumption is not uniform: while in Europe and Asia, the opioids are predominant; in the Americas, there is a high demand for the treatment of cocaine abuse, and in Africa, the demand is for treatments related to marijuana use(1).

In Brazil, 22.8% of the general population have experimented with psychoactive drugs (excluding alcohol and tobacco), according to a household survey conducted in 2005(2). Among these substances, the highest prevalence was for marijuana, solvents, benzodiazepines, anorexigenics, stimulants, and cocaine. The lifetime use of tobacco, observed in this survey, was about 44%, with higher prevalence among males(3).

Worldwide, it is estimated that approximately 1.3 billion people are cigarette smokers or use other types of tobacco products(4). Tobacco use is a leading cause of illness and premature death in the world (5), contributing to a significant portion of the global burden of disease, and it is rapidly increasing in the developing countries and among women(6). About half of smokers die from conditions associated with smoking. Although the earlier cessation of smoking is the most beneficial, quitting at any time is always advantageous, due to the improved prognosis and quality of life (7).

When comparing different age groups, it can be seen that the ages between 18 and 24 years have the highest prevalence for a lifetime use of marijuana and inhalants, while in the population between 25 and 34, it is more pervasive the lifetime use of cocaine and stimulants/anorexigenics. Women are more likely to abuse prescription drugs, among them stimulants/anorexigenics, benzodiazepines, codeine-based syrups, opiates, and barbiturates(3).

The abuse of psychoactive substances is a public health problem of considerable relevance to universities. In the United States, this behavior is the main cause of injury and death among students ages 18 to 25(8). Alcohol is the main psychoactive substance of choice among American college students; therefore, most of the problems are related to the consumption of alcoholic beverages. However, college students also suffer serious consequences resulting from the use of illegal substances or their use in combination with alcohol, so that the use of other substances, including tobacco, marijuana, and cocaine is significant among this group(9).

According to American epidemiological studies, about 30% of the students reported tobacco use in the last 30 days, about 20% or less reported using marijuana and less than 2% reported using cocaine(9). There is also evidence that these college students are more likely to report misuse of synthetic substances, when compared with young people of the same age(10) who were not attending college.

In the general population, this age group presents the highest frequencies for the use of psychoactive substances and the incidence of risk behaviors(2). Thus, requiring studies intended for the specific understanding of the college students´ reality (encompassing most of these young people), which will facilitate the development and implementation of effective public policies to deal with the problem(11).

Given the above, it becomes urgent and necessary a study on the drug use in our reality, and it is of the utmost importance the realization of a pharmaco-epidemiological approach and about the consequences of the abuse of legal and illegal drugs among college students. Considering the high prevalence of drug use among college students and the lack of studies, specifically in the Northeast region, the objective of this study was to determine the profile of the use of legal and illegal drugs by college students in a private university located in the municipality of Quixadá, Ceará.


Material and Methods

Data was collected through a quantitative analytic, prospective, cross-sectional, and observational study using a standardized and validated questionnaire constructed specifically for this study, which was administered to health sciences students from a private school of higher education, in the Sertão Central region located at 165 km from Fortaleza, in the municipality of Quixadá. The school has an enrollment of 2,103 students, divided into 14 undergraduate courses, of these 1,269 are enrolled in health sciences courses; the remaining are enrolled in the fields of exact sciences and humanities. The study was conducted from August to October 2010. The study population was composed of approximately 1,269 students from the 1st to the 9th academic period, and the sample was comprised of 345 students with 239 females and 106 males, attending the following undergraduate courses: 80 from Pharmacy (representing 47% of the students enrolled in the course), 80 from Physiotherapy (40% of the course), 80 from Nursing students (24% of the course), 80 from Dentistry (27% of the course), and 25 from Biomedicine (100% of the course), in a non-probabilistic and random form.

The study included college students of both sexes from the Health Sciences courses (Pharmacy, Physiotherapy, Nursing, Dentistry, and Biomedicine) of the FCRS.

The participation was informed and voluntary. Students were required to sign the Term of Free and Informed Consent form (TFICF) prior to participation in the study. The participation was anonymous and without moral hazard for the students because it dealt primarily with statistical data.

The project was approved by the Ethics in Research Committee of the Rainha do Sertão Catholic School (FCRS), protocol No. 200100075 on 06/18/2010, in accordance with Resolution 196/96 from the National Health Council/Ministry of Health, dealing with research involving human beings.

The information regarding the drug use and other data was collected using an anonymous self-administered questionnaire, composed of objective and subjective questions related to socioeconomic data (age, gender, self-reported skin color, marital status, household income, and housing type); use of legal and illegal drug; types of self-medication, as well as the use of alcohol (alcoholism) and tobacco (smoking). The questionnaires were administered collectively and kept anonymous. Only the students who were present in the classroom on the day of the interview were allowed to participate in the research, the exclusions were the ones who refused to participate in the survey or did not return the signed Term of Free and Informed Consent Form (TFICF).

The independent variables were the undergraduate course, age, gender, self-reported skin color, marital status, number of children, employment, housing type, household income, religion, use of legal and illegal drugs, and information related to the frequency of drug use, self-medication, and use of prescription drugs with the potential for abuse. The dependent variables were the reason that triggered this habit, the presence of smokers in the family, and the number of cigarettes smoked daily. For the data treatment, a database file was created using the Microsoft Excel program. For analysis and interpretation of our results, we used the existing studies in the literature found in the LILACS, SciELO, and ADOLEC, that were consulted during November 2010. The descriptive statistics with the use of the absolute and percentage frequency was used for the data analysis (16, 23).



A distribution frequency, among the college students interviewed, was observed in the following health science courses: Pharmacy (23%), Physiotherapy (23%), Nursing (23%), Dentistry (23%), and Biomedicine (8%).

Of the 345 students in the sample, 69.3% (the majority) were female, 57% with ages between 16 and 20 years old, 48% were self-described as of a brown color, and 44% as white. As for marital status, 90% were single, 82% were childless, and 70% lived with parents who owned their homes. Most students held no jobs (84%), and 63% had a household income of two to four minimum wages monthly salaries. As for religion, 90% were Catholic, 7% Evangelical and 3% Protestants (Tables 1 and 2).

As for the potential drug use, there was a consumption of 39% and 6% for legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, respectively, between the students of the health science courses from the studied university. It was also noted that 38% of the use were due to curiosity; 21% to peer pressure during social events, and 18% mainly due to their own volition.

Moreover, it was verified that 16% of them used cocaine and tranquilizers. Moreover, 35% of college students declared no drug use at all, legal or illegal. The students highlighted peer pressure (13%) and the high (21%) caused by drugs as motivating factors for their use, and the vast majority reported infrequent use of alcohol (71%), and 67% declared never drinking in excess.

From the results, it was determined that 69% never missed appointments due to alcohol use, and 85% never drink in the morning, 46% drink without a reason, and 39% consider the college parties as conducive to the alcohol use.

Regarding the tobacco use, 95% declared themselves as nonsmokers and 78% said their parents did not influence them. Of the 16 smokers, 64% declared peer pressure as the motivating factor for smoking (Table 3), and all of them reported smoking less than 10 cigarettes a day (100%).

Based on the findings, in general the students do not use prescription drugs (76%). With respect to self-medication, the results show that 71% of the students use non-prescription drugs, and 65% of them reported use of over the counter anti-inflammatory and analgesics (Table 4).



College students have been the subject of several studies because they form the group most vulnerable to various risk behaviors, among them the consumption of alcohol and other drugs(12). It is known that the college environment is conducive to the use of alcohol and other drugs, because of the many social events that promote and make the use of alcohol and illegal drugs attractive (13).

In another study(14), it was found that the overall prevalence of "illegal drugs" use among college students was of 38.1%, and 18.9% in the last 30 days. In this study, the results do not corroborate the data presented, since it was analyzed the use of "illegal drugs" among the students at least one time in life. In the aforementioned study, it was also reported that alcohol and tobacco are the substances most used, whereas our study detected a higher consumption of alcohol and cocaine among the students. In another study, it was also reported higher levels of alcohol and tobacco consumption(15). Thus, our data do not corroborate the studies available showing that there may be changes in the harmful lifestyles and habits of college students.

The interesting factor in this approach is the ability to compare the data from a specific population, as in this study, of college students, with the nationwide surveys conducted by the CEBRID and SENAD. In a survey conducted in Alfenas - MG, undergraduate students reported that they had consumed alcohol prior to the college attendance(16). This information is in agreement with the data collected by the SENAD in 2007. In the evaluation of the patterns of alcohol consumption among Brazilians, the youths reported starting the alcohol use between the age of 14.8 and 17.3; therefore, prior to the entry into higher education, which generally occurs after they reach 18(16-17).

In our study, there was a high prevalence of students between the ages of 16 and 20 who reported the use of at least one legal or illegal substance during social events or to relieve stress after the end of a day filled with academic activities; thus, corroborating with other studies(2-3). According to a study conducted with Health Sciences students from a university located in Curitiba - PR, the consumption of alcohol or drugs, among participants who had prior use of these, is induced primarily by "peer pressure". This study showed that 65.8% of students in the four courses studied, at least once, have experimented with these substances. As for the main reason that led to the first time use, 13.6% of Physical Education students reported that they began using in the pursuit of "fun or pleasure." However, 6.4% of the students reported that they started using these substances to "improve their performance" (school, sexual and/or social). Other reasons that induced the first time use of these substances were curiosity (18.7%), and the search for fun and/or easy pleasure (14.1%)(18).

A study involving Nursing students in Passo Fundo-RS revealed that bars, dance clubs, nightclubs (31.5%) and friends/acquaintances homes (18.2%) are the best places for the use of drugs, and, in particular, the alcohol consumption. Friends (49%) and relatives (20%) were responsible for introducing them to alcoholic beverages (19).

As for the cigarette use among the college students investigated in this article, 95% declared themselves as non-smokers, and that they were not influenced by the smoking habits of their families since 78% of the parents are non-smokers.

The results from a study on the drug use among college students in the city of Alfenas - MG with a sample of 1500 students from the two local universities (a federal and private one) demonstrated that 55% of students used some type of drug; however, the sample demonstrated a prior use of alcohol and tobacco. The work suggests that the university environment is not necessarily the starting point for the drug consumption(14). These results agree with our findings since it has detected a low number of smokers among the university students, and those who declared themselves smokers reported having started using tobacco before entering college.

Based on the results found in this study regarding religions, the majority of the student body is Catholic, with a small number of Evangelicals or Protestants among them. It can be assumed that a religious belief is acting as protection against the use of drugs in the population of students studied; similar results are also seen in other works. A study involving students from seven countries in Latin America found that high levels of religiosity were inversely related to early experiences with tobacco and marijuana; the opposite was true for the alcohol use. However, among the students who had the opportunity to experiment with tobacco and marijuana, the levels of religiosity had no influence on the choice for or against the use these substances (20).

The respondents’ profile showed the majority of the participants to be female (61.4%)(21), similar to data found in the present study, in which 69.3% of the students are females.

The results obtained in this study allowed for the collection of data related to the gender differences in the prevalence of drug use among college students. Thus, the biggest difference between genders was reported on the drug use in the last 30 days, with a significant increase in tobacco consumption among men (from 19.6 to 23.5%), marijuana (from 15.8 to 20.5%), amphetamines (from 1.1 to 3.2%), and inhalants (from 4.0 to 7.9%)(20). Our study showed significant consumption of alcohol for men and women (39%), cocaine (16%), tobacco (6%), and tranquilizers (4.0%).

Analgesics, anti-inflammatory, and antipyretics stood out as the most used by the university students. This data agrees with the findings from a study conducted in a public university located in Recife, with students from the health care area(22), in which analgesics and antipyretics were mention by the majority of the respondents (24%).

A study conducted in Petersburg, South Africa, verified a probable correlation between the increased use of tobacco and drugs and the students feeling tired, stressed, depressed, or while attending parties, and the alcohol use was higher when the students were partying, on the weekends or when having free time(23). This observation is not consistent with the results obtained in this study, which demonstrated that the users of these substances were not away from home; therefore, more exposed to it, since the vast majority is still living with their parents and a large number has never made use of alcohol, tobacco, or any other legal or illegal drug.

Our data, when compared to other countries, show similarities with respect to the socioeconomic profile and it demonstrates that the consumption of legal and illegal drugs is the leading cause of injury and death among students ages between 18 and 25(8).

Among the researched students, the use of alcohol and "illegal drugs" were related to the higher household income. Likewise, it was observed that students from private schools located in São Paulo reported that lately they have consumed a greater amount of cigarette, alcohol, marijuana, and inhalants, compared to public school students of the same age group(2). Moreover, it was observed that the "upper class" was associated with twice the risk of alcohol use than the lower class among students attending public primary and high schools(24). Our results agree with those reported in the literature since the students followed in this study belong to either the A or B socioeconomic classes, as defined by the number of minimum wage salaries forming the household income.



The confirmation that the college environment influences the abuse of psychoactive substances imparts greater importance to the creation of institutional preventive measures. Preventing drug abuse is essential to avoid damage to the health and quality of life of university students, as well as to reduce a subsequent chemical and physical dependence. The results underscore the importance of screening for substance use in the educational institutions analyzed, in order to implement prevention programs targeted to the local epidemiology, also corroborated in regional and national studies.

The results of this study have some limitations, since it originated from a private institution, which differs from the others by the number of students and their socioeconomic profile, although encompassing a representative sample of all the undergraduate Health Sciences courses offered by the FCRS.



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Rivelilson Mendes de Freitas
Universidade Federal do Piauí
Rua Cícero Eduardo, S/N
Bairro: Junco
CEP: 64600-000, Picos, PI, Brasil

Received: Nov. 21th 2010
Accepted: Apr. 1th 2013