Measures of both perceived general and specific risks and benefits differentially predict adolescent and young adult tobacco and marijuana use: findings from a Prospective Cohort Study

Humanit Soc Sci Commun. 2021;8(1):91. doi: 10.1057/s41599-021-00765-2. Epub 2021 Mar 29.


Health behavior theorists and prevention researchers use a variety of measures of adolescent and young adult (AYA) risk and benefit perceptions to predict tobacco-use and marijuana-use behaviors. However, studies have not examined whether and how perception measures that ask about likelihood of more general outcomes such as "harm" versus ask about specific risk or benefit outcomes compare or whether they differentially predict AYA willingness to use if one of your best friends were to offer it and intentions to use in the next year; and if these measures have differential ability to predict actual use of tobacco and marijuana. We used data from a prospective cohort of California AYAs to create and test new scales to measure perceptions of specific health and social outcomes related to risks (e.g., smell bad) and benefits (e.g., look cool) related to tobacco and marijuana, and then addressed three questions: (1) Whether and how measures of perceptions of specific social and health risks and benefits (for our purposes "specific measures") and measures of perceived general harm are differentially associated with measures of willingness, social norms, and intentions to use? (2) Are specific versus general measures differentially associated with and predictive of tobacco and cannabis use behavior? (3) Are specific perceptions measures differentially predictive of behavior compared to measures of willingness, social norms, and behavioral intentions? Our results demonstrate that to better predict AYA tobacco and marijuana use, measures that address general outcomes, such as harmfulness, as well as willingness and behavioral intention should be used. We also found that measures of specific perceived risks (short-term, long-term, social) and benefits were unrelated and correlated differently with different products. For example, adolescents perceived both risks and benefits from using products like e-cigarettes, and perceived greater risk from smokeless tobacco compared to combustible cigarettes. These findings indicate that measures of specific perceived social and health outcomes can be useful to discern nuanced differences in motivation for using different substances. Study implications are important for survey dimension-reduction and assessing relationships among perceptions, motivations, and use of tobacco and marijuana products.