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National Institute on Drug Abuse -  NIDA NOTES
Research Findings
Volume 14, Number 3 (September, 1999)

Ethnic Identification and Cultural Ties May Help Prevent Drug Use

By Patrick Zickler, NIDA NOTES Staff Writer

Among Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and Asians, cultural influences and ethnic identification may significantly influence drug use. Studies conducted by NIDA researchers in New York City suggest that Puerto Rican and African-American adolescents who strongly identify with their communities and cultures are less vulnerable to risk factors for drug use and benefit more from protective factors than do adolescents without this identification. In San Francisco, NIDA-supported research demonstrated different patterns of drug use among different subgroups of the Asian community. These findings suggest that incorporating ethnic and cultural components into drug abuse prevention programs can make these programs more effective.

Adolescents who strongly identify with their communities and cultures are less vulnerable to risk factors for drug use.

In one study, Dr. Judith Brook at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City examined the extent to which ethnic and cultural factors influenced drug-related behavior in Puerto Rican adolescents. She and her colleagues interviewed 275 males and 280 females aged 16 to 24. The researchers asked the participants to describe the importance in their lives of cultural and ethnic factors such as observation of Hispanic holidays and customs, preference for speaking Spanish or English, feelings of attachment to their ethnic group, ethnic affiliation of their friends, and the value placed on the family. The participants also answered questions designed to assess their personal risk for drug use; these risk factors included the use of drugs by parents or siblings, peer use or tolerance of drug use, perception of the riskiness of drug use, and the availability of illegal drugs in their environment. The participants were categorized into stages of drug use: no reported drug use, used alcohol or tobacco only, used marijuana but no other illicit drug, or used illicit drugs other than or in addition to marijuana.

"Other studies have looked at ethnic identification in isolation, not as an interactive part of a young person's cultural and social context," Dr. Brook says. "We wanted to determine the extent to which ethnic and cultural factors might mitigate risk factors or enhance protective factors and lead to lower stages of drug use. We found that strong ethnic identification acts to offset some risks, resulting in less drug use.

"For example, strong identification with Puerto Rican cultural factors offsets drug risks such as a father's drug use, peer tolerance of drugs, and the availability of drugs. Identification with Puerto Rican friends offsets risks associated with family tolerance for drug use and drug availability," Dr. Brook notes.

Ethnic identification also serves to amplify the effect of protective factors, Dr. Brook says. For example, among participants whose siblings were not drug users, those with a strong Puerto Rican affiliation were significantly more likely to be in a lower stage of drug use than those whose affiliation was weaker.

In a related study that focused on late-adolescent African Americans in New York City, Dr. Brook and her colleagues found a similar interaction between ethnic and cultural identification and drug use. The study involved 627 participants-259 male and 368 female-aged 16 to 25 years.

The researchers found that components of ethnic identity-such as awareness of African- American history and tradition, identification with African-American friends, or participation in African-American cultural activities such as Kwanzaa-interacted with other factors to reduce risk or to enhance protection.

"In isolation, few specific components of ethnic identity play a role as main effects on drug use. Instead, they act in combination with family, personality, or peer influences to blunt the negative impact of risk factors and magnify the positive value of protective factors," Dr. Brook says.

"Together, the research with Puerto Rican and African-American populations points out the importance of incorporating ethnic identity into drug programs," Dr. Brook concludes. "It can be a valuable part of drug prevention programs in communities and can also be applied to individual treatment programs."

Cultural Differences Lead to Different Patterns of Drug Use

In another NIDA-supported study, Dr. Tooru Nemoto and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, have identified patterns of drug use among Asian drug users that are unique to ethnicity, gender, age group, and immigrant status.

"Large multiracial studies have not distinguished between Asian ethnic groups," Dr. Nemoto says. "The purpose of our study was to describe the patterns of drug use in Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese groups and to assess the relationship between cultural factors and drug use among the groups."

The San Francisco study was based on qualitative interviews with 35 Chinese, 31 Filipino, and 26 Vietnamese drug users who were not enrolled in treatment programs. All participants were 18 years or older, with an average age of 32.5, and had used illicit drugs more than three times per week during the preceding 6 months. Overall, immigrants and women represented 66 percent and 36 percent, respectively. However, all Vietnamese were immigrants.

Overall, participants born in the U.S. began using drugs at an earlier age-15 years-than did immigrant Asians-19 years-and were more likely than immigrants to use more than one drug. In general, women started drug use at about the same age as men-about 17.5 years-but ethnic groups showed a varied pattern. Chinese women began earlier-at 15.2 years-than Chinese men-at 18.5 years. Filipino women began using drugs later-at 15.5 years-than Filipino men-at 13.1 years. Vietnamese women in the study started drug use much later-at 27.8 years-than did Vietnamese men-at 19.9 years.

Dr. Nemoto and his colleagues identified differences in drug use among the ethnic groups. Filipino drug users were most likely to have begun drug use with marijuana, while Vietnamese drug users in the study most often started with crack or powder cocaine. Chinese and Vietnamese were twice as likely as Filipinos to be using crack as their current primary drug. Filipinos were four times more likely to be using heroin than were Chinese or Vietnamese. Filipino study participants were more likely than Chinese or Vietnamese to be injecting and less likely to be smoking drugs. There were also significant differences in the characteristics of drug user networks among the ethnic groups. For example, Filipinos were more than twice as likely as Chinese or Vietnamese participants to use drugs in groups that included members of other races or ethnic groups.

"These differences among ethnic groups have important implications for the way we design programs aimed at Asian drug users," Dr. Nemoto says. "Prevention programs should address the common factors among Asian drug users, such as stigma associated with injection drug use, but we should also be careful to incorporate factors that are unique to each target group."


Brook, J.S., et al. Drug use among African Americans: Ethnic identity as a protective factor. Psychological Reports 83:1427-1446, 1998.

Brook, J.S.; Whiteman, M.; Balka, E.B.; Win, P.T.; and Gursen, M.D. Drug use among Puerto Ricans: Ethnic identity as a protective factor. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 20(2):241-254, 1998.

Nemoto, T., et al. Drug use behaviors among Asian drug users in San Francisco. Addictive Behavior (in press).

NIDA NOTES - Volume 14, Number 3

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