Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (gbMSM) report a higher prevalence of drug use in comparison to the general male population. However, in Ireland, there is a paucity of literature regarding the prevalence of drug use and its determinants among gbMSM.
To quantify the prevalence of (i) recreational drug use (RDU) and (ii) sexualised drug use (SDU) among gbMSM in Ireland, and to identify the factors associated with these drug use practices.
The European MSM Internet Survey (EMIS) 2017 was an online, anonymous, internationally-promoted questionnaire. Two binary outcomes were included in our analyses: (1) RDU and (2) SDU in the previous year. Multivariable-adjusted logistic regression explored factors associated with these outcomes, and all independent covariates were adjusted for one another.
Among gbMSM without HIV (n = 1,898), 40.9% and 13.1% engaged in RDU and SDU in the previous year, respectively. Among diagnosed-positive gbMSM (n = 141), the past-year respective prevalence estimates were 51.8% and 26.2%. Increased odds of RDU were observed among gbMSM who were younger (vs. 40+ years) (18–24 years; AOR 2.96, 95% CI 2.05–4.28, 25–39 years; AOR 1.66, 95% CI 1.27–2.16), lived in Dublin (vs. elsewhere) (AOR 1.47, 95% CI 1.17–1.83), and engaged in condomless anal intercourse (CAI) in the previous year (vs. none) (1–2 partners; AOR 1.79, 95% CI 1.34–2.38, 6+ partners; AOR 1.79, 95% CI 1.18–2.71). Greater odds of SDU were identified among those who lived in Dublin (vs. elsewhere) (AOR 1.50, 95% CI 1.07–2.10), and engaged in CAI (vs. none) (1–2 partners; AOR 3.16, 95% CI 2.05–4.88, 3–5 partners; AOR 2.50, 95% CI 1.47–4.26, and 6+ partners; AOR 3.79, 95% CI 2.23–6.43).
Citation: Daly FP, O’Donnell K, Davoren MP, Noone C, Weatherburn P, Quinlan M, et al. (2023) Recreational and sexualised drug use among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (gbMSM) in Ireland–Findings from the European MSM internet survey (EMIS) 2017. PLoS ONE 18(7): e0288171. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288171
Editor: Daniel Demant, University of Technology Sydney, AUSTRALIA
Received: February 24, 2023; Accepted: June 20, 2023; Published: July 28, 2023
Copyright: © 2023 Daly et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Data Availability: The Irish version of the EMIS-2017 dataset, used in the analysis of this study, was obtained following a data transfer agreement between the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and University College Cork. This agreement prohibits the sharing of this dataset publicly. While we cannot make these data publicly accessible at time of publication, all authors involved in this study will strive to make the data which underlie this study’s findings available in concordance with the PLOS Data Availability Policy. Data requests should be addressed to both the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Research Operations Office Data Management Lead (email@example.com) and the Principal Investigator of EMIS-2017, Peter Weatherburn (Peter.Weatherburn@lshtm.ac.uk). Those who seek to obtain data should clearly outline their research objective(s), in addition to enclosing a concise list of variables of interest. Confidentiality of participants is paramount and relies on appropriate data handling by the individual requesting access to the data.
Funding: EMIS-2017 occurred as part of ESTICOM (European Surveys and Training to Improve MSM Community Health), a three-year project funded by the European Commission Health Programme 2014-2020 through a tender commissioned by the Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency (CHAFEA) to deliver evidence about the sexual health of gay men, bisexual men and other MSM across Europe. For this study, the authors received no specific funding.
Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
In 2020, approximately 284 million people worldwide reported the use of illicit drugs within the previous 12 months; a 26% increase from 2010 . Drug-related harms can have deleterious effects on one’s life . For example, drug use is often associated with an increased risk of fatal poisonings and seizures, behavioural harms (such as accidents, violence, and crime), the acquisition of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and a multitude of adverse physical and mental health outcomes [3–5].
In Ireland, the overall prevalence of recreational drug use (RDU) has risen from 5.6% in 2002/2003 to 7.4% in 2019/2020 [6, 7], and in 2019/2020, males reported a higher prevalence in comparison to females (12.3% and 5.7%, respectively) . International evidence suggests that gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (gbMSM) have a higher prevalence of drug use versus age-comparable non-gbMSM [8–10]. In general, gbMSM already face considerable health-related inequalities in society, particularly those which pertain to sexual health and mental health . As drug use can overlap with these domains , it may therefore be detrimental to the overall wellbeing of gbMSM, and could result in a range of associated harms [13, 14]. Previously cited reasons for this drug use disparity may include “minority stress” , as well as the perceived “normalisation” of drug use within the gbMSM community , including sexualised drug use (SDU) .
“Chemsex”, a subset of SDU , is a term which is specific to the gbMSM community, and is ascribed to the utilisation of certain drugs to facilitate and enhance sexual encounters , which often occur in group sessions . Drugs commonly included in the definition of chemsex are gamma-hydroxybutyrate/gamma-butyrolactone (GHB/GBL), mephedrone, crystal methamphetamine, and to a lesser extent, ketamine [20–22]. A body of evidence proposes that chemsex may be associated with an array of adverse mental, physical, and/or sexual health outcomes [19, 23–27]. For example, all four of these drugs can also induce intense feelings of sexual arousal , which may lead to extreme sexual disinhibition and enhance longevity of sexual contact . Safer sex practices can be less important to those under the influence of these drugs which may, consequently, lead to increased acquisition of STIs and onward transmission of HIV . In relation to mental health outcomes, mephedrone and crystal methamphetamine frequently cause extreme anxiety and paranoia in the acute setting, which often precede prolonged bouts of depression [23–25].
Currently, there is a scarcity of literature examining both RDU and SDU among gbMSM in Ireland. The most recently estimated national prevalence of RDU among gbMSM in Ireland is 36% . However, these data are from 2015, and more recent estimates are warranted, hence the need for our study. Additionally, previous estimates of SDU among gbMSM in Ireland have ranged from as low as 6%  and 7%  in national surveys, to 27% among gbMSM-specific sexual health clinic attendees . Our study aimed to ascertain prevalence estimates using the latest available national Irish data, and we sought to identify the various demographic, psychosocial, and behavioural characteristics of gbMSM who engage in RDU and SDU. The purpose of this is to identify certain subgroups who are likely to benefit from targeted messaging, which may curtail the potential harms that can be associated with these drug use practices.
2.1. Study design
We utilised the Irish dataset from the European MSM Internet Survey (EMIS) 2017. EMIS-2017 was an online, anonymous, internationally-promoted survey among gbMSM across 50 countries in Europe, and was adapted from a previous survey, EMIS-2010 . Novel questions were added to EMIS-2017, and were based on topical developments in certain areas which affect the overall health and wellbeing of gbMSM. For example, questions relating to the availability and use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) were included in EMIS-2017 . The survey, which was available in any one of 33 different languages, began on 18th October 2017 and ended on 31st January 2018. Overall, 409 items were included in the survey, and a broad range of areas were explored, including sociodemographic characteristics, mental health, sexual health, and substance use .
2.2. Study population and sampling
In order to meet inclusion criteria for this study, participants had to initially give informed (written) consent. Respondents were required to identify as either a man and/or a trans man, and had to be sexually attracted to, or sexually active with, men. For inclusion in the Irish dataset specifically, candidates had to be resident in the Republic of Ireland, regardless of their native country (gbMSM residing in Northern Ireland were excluded). In addition, the study population were required to be over the legal age of sexual consent in their respective countries, i.e. at least 17 years of age in Ireland. However, we restricted our study sample to those aged 18+ years in accordance with the Social Research Ethics Committee (SREC) policies at University College Cork (UCC).
In order to recruit participants, a multi-media strategy was utilised , including:
- Statutory and non-governmental organisation (NGO) websites for gbMSM.
- Geospatial networking/contact applications, including Scruff, Gaydar, and GROWLr.
- Multiple social media platforms, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
There was also widespread promotion of EMIS-2017 through lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender+ (LGBT+) community organisations, along with the issuing of a press release for print media. Finally, business cards and posters were distributed at gay social/community venues.
Our two primary outcomes of interest were:
- Any RDU (excluding poppers) in the previous 12 months (yes/no).
- Engagement in SDU in the previous 12 months (yes/no).
EMIS-2017 contained a series of questions which related to drug use, including the specific type(s) of drug(s) the participants had ever used, and the recency of drug use (if ever). From this, we derived the first binary outcome variable. The full list of drugs which were used to derive this variable may be found below (results; section 3). Poppers were excluded as prior surveys have elucidated a higher prevalence of their use among gbMSM in comparison to other drugs, and because the legality pertaining to their use is not entirely clear in Ireland [30, 36].
A separate question asked participants whether they had ever used a pre-specified list of drugs (specifically, MDMA/“ecstasy”, cocaine, amphetamine/“speed”, crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone, and/or ketamine) “to make sex more intense or last longer” (i.e. SDU). If so, then respondents were asked about the recency of their engagement in SDU. From this, we derived the second binary outcome variable. Importantly, EMIS-2017 did not include GHB/GBL in this SDU-related question, unlike a previous Irish survey of gbMSM .
2.3.2. Independent covariates.
All included covariates were identified a priori. The selection of covariates was informed by a scoping review of the literature. A preliminary list was circulated amongst a panel of national stakeholders, and the final selection was achieved through consensus-decision making.
Although age was collected as a continuous variable, it was analysed categorically, and recoded it into three categories: 40+ years, 25–39 years, or 18–24 years. The rationale for this decision was that SDU (specifically chemsex) tends to be most common among gbMSM in their late twenties, thirties, and early forties [21, 37]. Therefore, expressing this covariate as a continuous one may mask a potential “n-shaped” association . This contrasts with RDU, which tends to peak in the earlier years, and is typically most common in the 18–24 age group [37, 39].
Number of condomless anal intercourse (CAI) partners in the previous year referred only to non-steady male partners. Although it was collected as a continuous variable, it was analysed categorically, and was recoded into four categories: 0, 1–2, 3–5, or 6+ partners. Furthermore, a proxy was created for “group sex”, as men were asked about the details of their last sexual encounter. Specifically, respondents were asked the following question: “were you having sex with one man or more than one man?”. From this, a new variable was generated, and assessed whether participants’ last sexual encounter was with 2+ males. Finally, EMIS-2017 utilised the “patient health questionnaire-4” (PHQ-4), a validated four-item inventory which is rated on a four-point Likert-type scale, to screen for anxiety/depression . This screening tool draws the first two items from the “generalised anxiety disorder-7 scale” (GAD-7) , as well as the “patient health questionnaire-8” (PHQ-8) , to screen for adverse mental health among the study sample. Details on the coding and analysis of the remaining covariates can be found in the supporting information (S1 Appendix).
2.4. Statistical analysis
Descriptive statistics were used to compare baseline characteristics of the study sample. Absolute numbers and percentages were reported for categorical variables. Pearson’s chi-square (χ2) was utilised for non-parametric tests of bivariate associations. Fisher’s exact test was employed for categorical covariates with a count of <5 in >20% of cells (i.e. Table 2) .
Single-predictor logistic regression analysis was initially conducted to calculate crude measures of association between independent variables and dichotomous outcomes. Subsequently, multivariable-adjusted logistic regression analysis was used in order to identify which independent variables were robust to adjustment with an array of potentially confounding covariates. All independent covariates included in these models were adjusted for one another. As we were dealing with cross-sectional data, our intention was to explore associations, without determining any causal relationships. Multicollinearity between explanatory variables was assessed using Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient, wherein all values were below the often-cited threshold of 0.40, indicating that multicollinearity was unlikely to be an issue . Furthermore, when missing data for a particular categorical variable are small (i.e. <5%), biases and loss of statistical power are likely to be relatively inconsequential . Thus, where 5% or more data were missing for an independent categorical variable, indicator variables were synthesised and included in the regression models.
Our analysis was stratified based on HIV status, with a separate sensitivity analysis of HIV-positive respondents using descriptive statistics and regression analyses for RDU and SDU outcomes. Variables pertaining to HIV testing history and current pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) use were not included in these models, as all men were diagnosed HIV-positive, which obviated the requirement for their inclusion. This approach was determined a priori in conjunction with multi-agency groups who work to promote the overall health and wellbeing of gbMSM.
All analysis was undertaken using Stata version 17.0 (StataCorp., TX, USA). Two-sided significance tests were utilised throughout, and all p-values were tested against a pre-set alpha level of significance which was set at 5%.
2.5. Ethical considerations
The Observational Research Ethics Committee at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) originally granted ethical approval for EMIS-2017. For this study specifically, the Social Research Ethics Committee (SREC) in University College Cork (UCC) granted approval, wherein LSHTM and UCC both approved a Data Transfer Agreement (S2 Appendix).
In total, 1,898 gbMSM (91.1% of the overall study population) were aged 18+ years, had complete drug use data recorded, and had not previously been diagnosed with HIV. The median age was 32 years (range 18–74 years), and 1882 (99.2%) and 16 (0.8%) participants identified as man and trans man, respectively. Overall, 776 (40.9%) and 249 (13.1%) men engaged in RDU and SDU in the previous 12 months, respectively.
Furthermore, 141 (6.8% of the overall study population) were aged 18+ years, had complete drug use data recorded, and had a previous diagnosis of HIV. One hundred and thirty six (95.7%) had an undetectable viral load due to treatment with anti-retroviral therapy (ART). The median age in this group was 40 years (range 21–68 years), 140 (99.3%) and <5 (<3.5%) respondents identified as man and trans man, respectively. In total, 73 (51.8%) and 37 (26.2%) gbMSM with a diagnosis of HIV reported RDU and SDU in the past year, respectively.
The full list of drugs used to derive the RDU variable is as follows: cannabis, cocaine, MDMA pill form, MDMA powder or crystal form, ketamine, amphetamine/speed, GHB/GBL, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), crystal methamphetamine, synthetic cannabinoids, mephedrone, synthetic stimulants other than mephedrone (e.g. 3-methylmethcathinone), crack cocaine, and heroin or other related drugs (e.g. fentanyl). The prevalence of past-year use of each specific drug among the study sample is fully outlined in the supporting information (S3 Appendix).
3.1. Multi-predictor logistic regression analysis
3.1.1. RDU among gbMSM without a diagnosis of HIV.
In our initial multivariable model (Table 3), the odds of engaging in RDU were higher in younger age groups (vs. aged 40+ years) (18–24 years; AOR 2.96, 95% CI 2.05–4.28, 25–39 years; AOR 1.66, 95% CI 1.27–2.16), and in gbMSM who self-identified as bisexual (vs. gay/homosexual) (AOR 1.74, 95% CI 1.22–2.48). Increased odds of RDU were observed among men who disclosed their sexual orientation to a larger number of family/close friends (vs. none) (less than half; AOR 1.72, 95% CI 1.02–2.91, more than half; AOR 2.29, 95% CI 1.31–4.00, all or almost all; AOR 3.20, 95% CI 1.88–5.46), and among those who engaged in CAI with non-steady male partners in the previous 12 months (vs. none) (1–2 partners; AOR 1.79, 95% CI 1.34–2.38, 6+ partners; AOR 1.79, 95% CI 1.18–2.71). Any RDU in the previous year was significantly more likely among gbMSM who self-reported a bacterial STI diagnosis within the same timeframe (vs. none) (AOR 1.53, 95% CI 1.12–2.10), lived in Dublin (vs. outside Dublin) (AOR 1.47, 95% CI 1.17–1.83), and screened positive for a mild degree of anxiety/depression (vs. none) (AOR 1.45, 95% CI 1.14–1.84).
3.1.2. SDU among gbMSM without a diagnosis of HIV.
As shown in Table 4, gbMSM who engaged in SDU in the previous year were more likely to self-identify as bisexual (vs. gay/homosexual) (AOR 1.75, 95% CI 1.05–2.92), report any number of non-steady CAI partners in the previous year (vs. none) (1–2 partners; AOR 3.16, 95% CI 2.05–4.88, 3–5 partners; AOR 2.50, 95% CI 1.47–4.26, 6+ partners; AOR 3.79, 95% CI 2.23–6.43), self-report a bacterial STI diagnosis within the same timeframe (vs. none) (AOR 2.15, 95% CI 1.48–3.12), and live in Dublin (vs. outside Dublin) (AOR 1.50, 95% CI 1.07–2.10). Furthermore, the odds of SDU were significantly higher among gbMSM who reported group sex in their last sexual encounter (vs. none) (AOR 1.73, 95% CI 1.15–2.60), and in gbMSM who had attended for HIV testing but had a negative test result (vs. never tested) (AOR 2.02, 95% CI 1.20–3.39). GbMSM who were students were less likely to report SDU (vs. employed gbMSM) (AOR 0.50, 95% CI 0.29–0.86).
3.1.3. RDU among gbMSM with diagnosis of HIV.
In Table 5, higher odds of RDU were found among HIV-diagnosed gbMSM who screened positive for severe anxiety/depression (vs. none) (AOR 5.86, 95% CI 1.21–28.37), and among those who disclosed their sexual orientation to all or almost all of their family/close friends (vs. less than half) (AOR 5.69, 95% CI 1.38–23.56).
3.1.4. SDU among gbMSM with a diagnosis of HIV.
Finally, in Table 6, greater odds of SDU were found among gbMSM with a positive diagnosis of HIV who resided in Dublin (vs. outside Dublin) (AOR 5.00, 95% CI 1.13–22.12), and among those who reported 6+ non-steady CAI partners in the previous year (vs. none) (AOR 17.42, 95% CI 1.37–221.78).
4.1. Principal findings
GbMSM in our sample reported a high prevalence of past-year RDU (51.8% and 40.9% among those with and without a diagnosis of HIV, respectively). These estimates are in stark contrast to the 2019/2020 prevalence estimates of RDU among the general male population in Ireland (12.3%) . Notably, our analysis was stratified based on HIV status because previous literature has suggested that HIV-positive gbMSM can systematically differ from HIV-negative men in certain aspects. For example, HIV-positive gbMSM are typically more likely to engage in substance use [19, 46]. They also tend to have a high level of formal engagement with healthcare services due to their diagnosis which, by default, presents opportunities for health promotion and preventive messaging from trusted healthcare professionals . Finally, current PrEP use (an independent covariate included in our study) was specifically used by non-diagnosed positive gbMSM only. Consequently, stratification by HIV status was required to prevent the introduction of systematic error in our multivariable models.
Among gbMSM without a prior diagnosis of HIV, those who were younger were more likely to engage in RDU in the previous year. GbMSM who resided in Dublin were almost one and a half times more likely to report RDU. These findings are consistent with the results of prior studies [30, 39]. Among the general male population in Ireland, 15–24 year olds represent the age category with the highest burden of past-year drug use [6, 7], and our study revealed a similar pattern (albeit amongst 18–24 year olds). Conversely, while previous research suggests that SDU (specifically chemsex) is most common in the late twenties, thirties, and early forties among gbMSM [21, 37], our study did not elucidate any significant relationship between age and SDU. However, EMIS-2017 omitted GHB/GBL from its definition of SDU, and included a number of other drugs, such as cocaine and MDMA. Both of these drugs are common at the population-level, particularly among those aged 15–24 years , and perhaps their inclusion may have attenuated our findings towards null. Furthermore, gbMSM residing in Dublin had a greater tendency to engage in SDU, irrespective of HIV status, which is consistent with the most recent national study of Irish gbMSM, which analysed data from 2015 . SDU often occurs in private homes, and can be facilitated through smart-phone geospatial networking applications. Therefore, in urban centres such as Dublin, large groups of gbMSM may congregate at relatively short notice . This could potentially account for the higher odds of SDU among respondents who were residing in the capital city.
We observed increased odds of both RDU and SDU among non-diagnosed positive gbMSM who reported CAI encounters with numerous non-steady male partners in the previous 12 months. Non-diagnosed positive gbMSM who self-reported a bacterial STI diagnosis within the same timeframe were 53% and 115% more likely to engage in recent RDU and SDU, respectively. In addition, those who reported that their last sexual encounter involved group sex had a 73% increased odds of engaging in SDU within the previous 12 months. In Ireland, gbMSM account for less than 10% of the overall male population , yet it is estimated that they make up 86% and 65% of all incident diagnoses of syphilis and gonorrhoea, respectively [49, 50]. Non-diagnosed gbMSM who presented for HIV testing (and tested negative) were approximately twice as likely to engage in SDU in the previous year. These findings are consistent with previous studies [19, 22, 30, 51, 52]. Indeed, it is beneficial that these men are more proactive about their sexual health by engaging with healthcare services. Furthermore, among HIV-positive gbMSM in our study, 96% had an undetectable viral load due to treatment with ART. This is an important finding for these individuals in relation to their overall health and wellbeing, and it also reduces the likelihood of onward transmission to HIV-negative gbMSM with whom they may engage in sexual activities (i.e. undetectable = untransmittable [U = U]). However, our study found no significant association between current PrEP use and engagement in RDU and/or SDU among gbMSM without a diagnosis of HIV, although only 78 participants reported current PrEP use. Importantly, the provision of PrEP has increased dramatically in Ireland due to the national “HIV PrEP” programme which was rolled-out in November 2019 (i.e. after EMIS-2017 was conducted) . Therefore, further research is warranted in Ireland as PrEP has become more widely available, as it may play a key role in curtailing the incidence of HIV among both gbMSM and the general population. Of note, gbMSM account for over 50% of all incident HIV diagnoses annually in Ireland .
Increased odds of RDU were more likely among gbMSM who reported anxiety/depression. Specifically, non-diagnosed positive gbMSM who screened positive for a mild level of adverse mental health were approximately 50% more likely to engage in RDU, while HIV-diagnosed gbMSM who reported a severe level of adverse mental health were almost five times more likely to report SDU in the previous year. The exact reasons which underpin this disparity are likely multifactorial and complex. In 2022, a systematic review explored the determinants of depression among gbMSM living with HIV , and the authors concluded that HIV-related stigma likely plays a prominent role in the manifestation of poorer mental health outcomes among HIV-diagnosed gbMSM. Separately, in our study, those who were more open about their sexuality were also more likely to report RDU, wherein a gradient effect was observed (among gbMSM without a diagnosis of HIV). Although prior literature has highlighted similar findings in relation to drug use and adverse mental health outcomes [56, 57], greater disclosure of sexual orientation among gbMSM is usually an indication of self-acceptance and improved psychological adjustment . It is usually the “rejection reactions” that are typically associated with drug use , and this may have contributed to the association we observe between greater “openness” and drug use among gbMSM in our sample. Conversely, another possible explanation for this association could be the long cultural history of drug use in the LGBT+ community, which may be motivated by the desire to experience pleasure, increase empathy and caring, and enhance community spirit . Thus, the more “out” one is, the more likely they are to socialise in gay bars and immerse themselves in gay culture.
Finally, although we may draw comparisons between the prevalence of SDU among our study sample and in previous studies, it is important to consider the exact definition of SDU used, i.e. which specific set of drugs were included, and in what context. A common definition of SDU (specifically chemsex) refers to the consumption of certain drugs (typically crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone, GHB/GBL, and/or ketamine) by gbMSM, before and/or during sex [20–22]. However, an increasing number of sources now qualify cocaine, other stimulants (e.g. MDMA/ecstasy and amphetamine/speed), and new psychoactive substances (e.g. tryptamines) as “chemsex drugs” [19, 31, 61, 62]. Barrett et al. analysed the latest available data (2015) among a nationally-representative sample of Irish gbMSM, and found that 7% of gbMSM used one or more drugs associated with chemsex in the previous year . However, a number of methodological differences from our study must be noted. Firstly, this study qualified crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone, GHB/GBL, and/or ketamine as drugs associated with chemsex. Additionally, this study only asked about the use of these “chemsex drugs” by gbMSM in general, as opposed to their specific consumption by gbMSM before and/or during sexual encounters. By contrast, our study refers to the consumption of MDMA/ecstasy, cocaine, amphetamine/speed, crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone, and/or ketamine in the sexual setting specifically. Therefore, caution should be exercised when comparing these prevalence estimates. Notably, using data from 2016, Frankis et al. estimated that among gbMSM who reside in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, or the Republic of Ireland, 27% of those who consume one or more “chemsex drugs” (crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone, GHB/GBL, and/or ketamine) each year do not use these drugs in sexual encounters .
4.2. Strengths and limitations
This study has a number of strengths. Firstly, participants could elect to take the survey in any one of 33 different languages, which increased participation rates from non-English speaking respondents, thereby reducing selection bias. Latin American gbMSM (who may not speak English) are disproportionately impacted by HIV diagnoses in Ireland in comparison to their Irish contemporaries . However, we could not extract meaningful data pertaining to participants’ ethnicities, apart from whether they were born in Ireland or not. This prevented us from assessing specific ethnic subgroups of interest. Secondly, EMIS-2017 was entirely anonymous, which may have increased the internal validity of the study, particularly in relation to sensitive questions (e.g. drug use, HIV/STI diagnoses, and CAI encounters). Previous studies have concluded that online anonymous surveys are the optimal method for assessing drug use [63, 64], and the reduction in social desirability bias in our study likely boosts the validity of our outcome data. Thirdly, we had relatively complete data on study respondents. Most of the variables in our regression models had <1% missing data. Only three variables had ≥5% missing data, and we synthesised indicator variables to control for this. Fourthly, approximately 70% of participants in the overall European dataset were recruited through social networking apps such as PlanetRomeo, Grindr, and Hornet . In Ireland, this respective figure was only about 40% . This was likely due to large community-led efforts with a concerted focus on recruiting gbMSM through gay bars or cafés, gay saunas, gay community centres, and other social venues . Arguably, this may render our findings more generalisable to the wider gbMSM community in Ireland if it encompasses a wider selection of participants, rather than those who engage in the use of dating/networking apps, who tend to be younger, more technologically literature, and have a greater degree of disclose about their sexual orientation [65, 66]. Lastly, the large number of respondents increased our study’s statistical power. However, the smaller quantity of HIV-positive gbMSM in our sample likely introduced type 2 statistical error, which may have prevented us from detecting numerous significant associations .
Several limitations of this study merit discussion. Firstly, deciphering the exact temporal sequence of events is not possible, given our study’s cross-sectional design, which hinders our ability to draw any causal conclusions. As a corollary to this limitation, reverse causality must be considered, particularly for certain associations, such as that between drug use and depression/anxiety. Secondly, all data were self-reported, which may have led to information bias. Thirdly, convenience sampling was utilised in order to boost the participation rate which, in comparison to probability-based sampling, tends to enlist gbMSM with higher levels of drug use . This may have inflated our prevalence estimates. Another significant limitation to our study is the exclusion of GHB/GBL in our definition of SDU. Future surveys (including EMIS) should endeavour to include GHB/GBL in questions which specifically relate to SDU/chemsex. Furthermore, we collapsed categories for certain covariates to circumvent the requirement for a Bonferroni correction, while still aiming to decrease the rate of family-wise error . However, this may have reduced the overall variability within our dataset . Finally, although EMIS data are the latest available data on gbMSM across Europe, the survey was undertaken prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps many socio-environmental changes have occurred in the intervening period, which may warrant further research.
4.3. Public health implications
Although gbMSM would likely derive benefit from population-based interventions to curtail the harms associated with drug use, these approaches could be complemented by more targeted interventions, and our study has identified potential subgroups of gbMSM who may be at higher odds of engaging in these drug use practices. For example, those who reside in Dublin appear to be at greater odds of RDU and SDU. Peer outreach workers may play an important role in providing direct information to under-reached individuals about safer use and recovery supports, or may signpost these men to available support services .
Additional targeted measures, such as brief intervention training for non-specialist healthcare professionals who work closely with the gbMSM community, may also be warranted. Brief interventions are an integral part of the Irish Health Service’s Making Every Contact Count (MECC) initiative, and can easily be conducted in many different clinical settings . Harm reduction campaigns may also be of benefit, whereby a concerted focus is placed on reducing the adverse consequences that can be associated with drug use. For example, men who had a recent diagnosis of a bacterial STI and/or who engage in CAI appear to be at higher odds of RDU and SDU. Although it is beneficial that these men have presented for testing, perhaps more efforts should be made to support healthier drug use choices among this cohort (such as emphasising the importance of condom utilisation), given that these men are already engaging with healthcare services. This approach may be particularly effective in reducing drug-related harms amongst those who would not otherwise seek out substance use services .
In this study, gbMSM in Ireland reported a high prevalence of RDU and SDU. This was particularly true for men who were living in Dublin, presented for HIV testing, engaged in more CAI encounters, and reported a recent diagnosis of a bacterial STI. GbMSM who engaged in RDU were more likely to be younger, be more open about their sexuality, and screen positive for adverse mental health outcomes. Messaging should be tailored to subgroups of gbMSM who are likely to be at increased odds of drug-related harms, and our findings may serve as a guideline to relevant partner organisations who work to promote the overall health and wellbeing of gbMSM nationally.
S1 Appendix. Coding and analysis of the remaining covariates.
S2 Appendix. Data Transfer Agreement between LSHTM and UCC.
We sincerely thank all those who gave their time to participate in EMIS-2017. We also extend our gratitude to the coordinators of the EMIS-2017 survey for their invaluable knowledge and patience. Lastly, we would like to credit all the Irish partners that aided in the study design and recruitment, including Gay Health Network, Man2Man, HIV Ireland, Outhouse, Gender, Orientation, Sexual Health and HIV, Sexual Health Centre, Cork, AIDS West, Gay Community News, Health Service Executive, Gay Men’s Health Service, Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme, and Health Protection Surveillance Centre. EMIS-2017 was coordinated by Sigma Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in association with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Berlin.
EMIS core team at Sigma Research (LSHTM): Ford Hickson, David Reid, Axel J. Schmidt, and Peter Weatherburn.
- 1. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2022). GLOBAL OVERVIEW: DRUG DEMAND DRUG SUPPLY. Available from: https://www.unodc.org/res/wdr2022/MS/WDR22_Booklet_2.pdf.
- 2. Fox TP, Oliver G, Ellis SM. The destructive capacity of drug abuse: an overview exploring the harmful potential of drug abuse both to the individual and to society. ISRN Addict. 2013;2013:450348. pmid:25938116
- 3. Hempstead K. Manner of death and circumstances in fatal poisonings: evidence from New Jersey. Inj Prev. 2006;12 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):ii44–ii8. pmid:17170171
- 4. Nutt D, King LA, Saulsbury W, Blakemore C. Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. Lancet. 2007;369(9566):1047–53. pmid:17382831
- 5. Paquette R, Tanton C, Burns F, Prah P, Shahmanesh M, Field N, et al. Illicit drug use and its association with key sexual risk behaviours and outcomes: Findings from Britain’s third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3). PLoS One. 2017;12(5):e0177922. pmid:28542366
- 6. National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol. Prevalence of Drug Use and Gambling in Ireland and Drug Use in Northern Ireland. 2016.
- 7. Mongan D, Millar SR, Galvin B. The 2019–20 Irish National Drug and Alcohol Survey: Main findings. Dublin: Health Research Board. 2021.
- 8. Conron KJ, Mimiaga MJ, Landers SJ. A population-based study of sexual orientation identity and gender differences in adult health. Am J Public Health. 2010;100(10):1953–60. pmid:20516373
- 9. Bonell CP, Hickson FC, Weatherburn P, Reid DS. Methamphetamine use among gay men across the UK. Int J Drug Policy. 2010;21(3):244–6. pmid:19729290
- 10. Roxburgh A, Lea T, de Wit J, Degenhardt L. Sexual identity and prevalence of alcohol and other drug use among Australians in the general population. Int J Drug Policy. 2016;28:76–82. pmid:26691433
- 11. Mercer CH, Prah P, Field N, Tanton C, Macdowall W, Clifton S, et al. The health and well-being of men who have sex with men (MSM) in Britain: Evidence from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3). 2016(1471–2458 (Electronic)).
- 12. Public Health England, 2014. Promoting the Health and Wellbeing of Gay, Bisexual and Other Men Who Have Sex With Men. Initial Findings. Public Health England, London.
- 13. Parent MC, Arriaga AS, Gobble T, Wille L. Stress and substance use among sexual and gender minority individuals across the lifespan. Neurobiol Stress. 2019;10:100146. pmid:30937352
- 14. Meyer IH. Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychol Bull. 2003;129(5):674–97. pmid:12956539
- 15. Hughes TL, Eliason M. Substance Use and Abuse in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Populations. Journal of Primary Prevention. 2002;22(3):263–98.
- 16. Amundsen E, Haugstvedt Å, Skogen V, Berg RC. Health characteristics associated with chemsex among men who have sex with men: Results from a cross-sectional clinic survey in Norway. PLoS One. 2022;17(10):e0275618. pmid:36197878
- 17. Kennedy R, Murira J, Foster K, Heinsbroek E, Keane F, Pal N, et al. Sexualized drug use and specialist service experience among MSM attending urban and rural sexual health clinics in England and Scotland. Int J STD AIDS. 2021;32(14):1338–46. pmid:34545755
- 18. Bourne A, Reid D, Hickson F, Torres Rueda S, Weatherburn P. The Chemsex study: drug use in sexual settings among gay and bisexual men in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham. 2014.
- 19. Hegazi A, Lee MJ, Whittaker W, Green S, Simms R, Cutts R, et al. Chemsex and the city: sexualised substance use in gay bisexual and other men who have sex with men attending sexual health clinics. Int J STD AIDS. 2017;28(4):362–6. pmid:27178067
- 20. Edmundson C, Heinsbroek E, Glass R, Hope V, Mohammed H, White M, et al. Sexualised drug use in the United Kingdom (UK): A review of the literature. Int J Drug Policy. 2018;55:131–48. pmid:29625796
- 21. Frankis J, Flowers P, McDaid L, Bourne A. Low levels of chemsex among men who have sex with men, but high levels of risk among men who engage in chemsex: analysis of a cross-sectional online survey across four countries. Sex Health. 2018;15(2):144–50. pmid:29592829
- 22. Blomquist PB, Mohammed H, Mikhail A, Weatherburn P, Reid D, Wayal S, et al. Characteristics and sexual health service use of MSM engaging in chemsex: results from a large online survey in England. Sex Transm Infect. 2020;96(8):590–5. pmid:32139497
- 23. Bohn A, Sander D, Köhler T, Hees N, Oswald F, Scherbaum N, et al. Chemsex and Mental Health of Men Who Have Sex With Men in Germany. Front Psychiatry. 2020;11:542301. pmid:33329083
- 24. Hampel B, Kusejko K, Kouyos RD, Böni J, Flepp M, Stöckle M, et al. Chemsex drugs on the rise: a longitudinal analysis of the Swiss HIV Cohort Study from 2007 to 2017. HIV Med. 2020;21(4):228–39. pmid:31849182
- 25. Bourne A, Reid D, Hickson F, Torres-Rueda S, Steinberg P, Weatherburn P. "Chemsex" and harm reduction need among gay men in South London. Int J Drug Policy. 2015;26(12):1171–6. pmid:26298332
- 26. Raposo Pereira F, McMaster MTB, de Vries YAT, van den Brink W, van Wingen GA. Demographic and Clinical Characteristics of Regular GHB-Users with and without GHB-Induced Comas. Subst Use Misuse. 2020;55(13):2148–55. pmid:32772606
- 27. Khadr SN, Jones KG, Mann S, Hale DR, Johnson AM, Viner RM, et al. Investigating the relationship between substance use and sexual behaviour in young people in Britain: findings from a national probability survey. BMJ Open. 2016;6(6):e011961. pmid:27363820
- 28. Weatherburn P, Hickson F, Reid D, Torres-Rueda S, Bourne A. Motivations and values associated with combining sex and illicit drugs (’chemsex’) among gay men in South London: findings from a qualitative study. Sex Transm Infect. 2017;93(3):203–6. pmid:27519259
- 29. Li R, Wang H, Pan X, Ma Q, Chen L, Zhou X, et al. Prevalence of condomless anal intercourse and recent HIV testing and their associated factors among men who have sex with men in Hangzhou, China: A respondent-driven sampling survey. PLoS One. 2017;12(3):e0167730. pmid:28273077
- 30. Barrett P, O’Donnell K, Fitzgerald M, Schmidt AJ, Hickson F, Quinlan M, et al. Drug use among men who have sex with men in Ireland: Prevalence and associated factors from a national online survey. Int J Drug Policy. 2019;64:5–12. pmid:30513421
- 31. Glynn RW, Byrne N, O’Dea S, Shanley A, Codd M, Keenan E, et al. Chemsex, risk behaviours and sexually transmitted infections among men who have sex with men in Dublin, Ireland. Int J Drug Policy. 2018;52:9–15. pmid:29223761
- 32. The EMIS Network. EMIS 2010: The European Men-Who-Have-Sex-With-Men Internet Survey. Findings from 38 countries. Stockholm: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, 2013.
- 33. Weatherburn P, Hickson F, Reid DS, Marcus U, Schmidt AJ. European Men-Who-Have-Sex-With-Men Internet Survey (EMIS-2017): Design and Methods. Sexuality Research and Social Policy. 2020;17(4):543–57.
- 34. Weatherburn P, Hickson F, Reid DS, Schink SB, Marcus U, Schmidt AJ. EMIS-2017 –The European Men-Who-Have-Sex-With-Men Internet Survey. Key findings from 50 countries. Stockholm: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. 2019.
- 35. Health Protection Surveillance Centre. EMIS-2017 Ireland: Findings from the European Men who have sex with men Internet Survey (Ireland). 2019.
- 36. McCartney D, Bader M, Donlon S, Hickson F, Quinlan M. REAL LIVES 2. FINDINGS FROM THE ALL-IRELAND GAY MEN’S SEX SURVEYS, 2005 AND 2006. Gay Health Network. 2009.
- 37. O’Donnell K, Fitzgerald M, Barrett P, Quinlan M, Igoe D. MISI 2015: findings from the men who have sex with men internet survey. Dublin: Health Protection Surveillance Centre. 2016.
- 38. Cox LA Jr. Detecting causal nonlinear exposure-response relations in epidemiological data. Dose Response. 2006;4(2):119–32. pmid:18648583
- 39. Daskalopoulou M, Rodger A, Phillips AN, Sherr L, Speakman A, Collins S, et al. Recreational drug use, polydrug use, and sexual behaviour in HIV-diagnosed men who have sex with men in the UK: results from the cross-sectional ASTRA study. Lancet HIV. 2014;1(1):e22–31. pmid:26423813
- 40. Kroenke K, Spitzer RL, Williams JB, Löwe B. An ultra-brief screening scale for anxiety and depression: the PHQ-4. Psychosomatics. 2009;50(6):613–21. pmid:19996233
- 41. Spitzer RL, Kroenke K, Williams JB, Löwe B. A brief measure for assessing generalized anxiety disorder: the GAD-7. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166(10):1092–7. pmid:16717171
- 42. Kroenke K, Strine TW, Spitzer RL, Williams JB, Berry JT, Mokdad AH. The PHQ-8 as a measure of current depression in the general population. J Affect Disord. 2009;114(1–3):163–73. pmid:18752852
- 43. Kim HY. Statistical notes for clinical researchers: Chi-squared test and Fisher’s exact test. Restor Dent Endod. 2017;42(2):152–5. pmid:28503482
- 44. Schober P, Boer C, Schwarte LA. Correlation Coefficients: Appropriate Use and Interpretation. Anesthesia & Analgesia. 2018;126(5). pmid:29481436
- 45. Graham JW. Missing data analysis: making it work in the real world. Annu Rev Psychol. 2009;60:549–76. pmid:18652544
- 46. Wei C, Guadamuz TE, Lim SH, Huang Y, Koe S. Patterns and levels of illicit drug use among men who have sex with men in Asia. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2012;120(1–3):246–9. pmid:21831535
- 47. White P, O’Donnell K, Brennan A, Davoren M, Lyons F, Quinlan M, et al. Hepatitis A and B vaccination in gbMSM in Ireland: findings from the European MSM Internet Survey 2017 (EMIS-2017). Sex Transm Infect. 2022. pmid:36517220
- 48. Healthy Ireland. Healthy Ireland Survey 2015: Summary of Findings, Dublin. 2015.
- 49. HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre. Early infectious syphilis in Ireland, 2018. Dublin. HSE HPSC. 2019.
- 50. HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre. Gonorrhoea in Ireland, 2018. Dublin. HSE HPSC. 2019.
- 51. MacGregor L, Kohli M, Looker KJ, Hickson F, Weatherburn P, Schmidt AJ, et al. Chemsex and diagnoses of syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia among men who have sex with men in the UK: a multivariable prediction model using causal inference methodology. Sex Transm Infect. 2021;97(4):282–9. pmid:33452129
- 52. Evers YJ, Van Liere G, Hoebe C, Dukers-Muijrers N. Chemsex among men who have sex with men living outside major cities and associations with sexually transmitted infections: A cross-sectional study in the Netherlands. PLoS One. 2019;14(5):e0216732. pmid:31086390
- 53. Department of Health. Minister Hildegarde Naughton welcomes publication of the Review of the National Sexual Health Strategy. 2023. Available from: https://www.gov.ie/en/press-release/ab0b2-minister-hildegarde-naughton-welcomes-publication-of-the-review-of-the-national-sexual-health-strategy/.
- 54. HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre. HIV in Ireland, 2018. Dublin. HSE HPSC. 2019.
- 55. Mohamad Fisal ZA, Minhat HS, Mohd Zulkefli NA, Ahmad N. Biopsychosocial approach to understanding determinants of depression among men who have sex with men living with HIV: A systematic review. PLoS One. 2022;17(3):e0264636. pmid:35286312
- 56. Chou FY, Armstrong HL, Wang L, Bacani N, Lachowsky NJ, Patterson TL, et al. A longitudinal analysis of cannabis use and mental health symptoms among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men in Vancouver, Canada. J Affect Disord. 2019;247:125–33. pmid:30665075
- 57. Peck JA, Reback CJ, Yang X, Rotheram-Fuller E, Shoptaw S. Sustained reductions in drug use and depression symptoms from treatment for drug abuse in methamphetamine-dependent gay and bisexual men. J Urban Health. 2005;82(1 Suppl 1):i100–8. pmid:15738315
- 58. Camp J, Vitoratou S, Rimes KA. LGBQ+ Self-Acceptance and Its Relationship with Minority Stressors and Mental Health: A Systematic Literature Review. Arch Sex Behav. 2020;49(7):2353–73. pmid:32504233
- 59. Rosario M, Schrimshaw EW, Hunter J. Disclosure of sexual orientation and subsequent substance use and abuse among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths: critical role of disclosure reactions. Psychol Addict Behav. 2009;23(1):175–84. pmid:19290704
- 60. Race K. Pleasure consuming medicine: The queer politics of drugs. Duke University Press; 2009.
- 61. Maxwell S, Shahmanesh M, Gafos M. Chemsex behaviours among men who have sex with men: A systematic review of the literature. Int J Drug Policy. 2019;63:74–89. pmid:30513473
- 62. Sewell J, Cambiano V, Speakman A, Lampe FC, Phillips A, Stuart D, et al. Changes in chemsex and sexual behaviour over time, among a cohort of MSM in London and Brighton: Findings from the AURAH2 study. Int J Drug Policy. 2019;68:54–61. pmid:30999243
- 63. Newman JC, Des Jarlais DC, Turner CF, Gribble J, Cooley P, Paone D. The differential effects of face-to-face and computer interview modes. Am J Public Health. 2002;92(2):294–7. pmid:11818309
- 64. Macalino GE, Celentano DD, Latkin C, Strathdee SA, Vlahov D. Risk behaviors by audio computer-assisted self-interviews among HIV-seropositive and HIV-seronegative injection drug users. AIDS Educ Prev. 2002;14(5):367–78. pmid:12413183
- 65. Zou H, Fan S. Characteristics of Men Who Have Sex With Men Who Use Smartphone Geosocial Networking Applications and Implications for HIV Interventions: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Arch Sex Behav. 2017;46(4):885–94. pmid:27043837
- 66. Zou H, Prestage G, Fairley CK, Grulich AE, Garland SM, Hocking JS, et al. Sexual behaviors and risk for sexually transmitted infections among teenage men who have sex with men. J Adolesc Health. 2014;55(2):247–53. pmid:24661735
- 67. Columb MO, Atkinson MS. Statistical analysis: sample size and power estimations. BJA Education. 2016;16(5):159–61.
- 68. Prah P, Hickson F, Bonell C, McDaid LM, Johnson AM, Wayal S, et al. Men who have sex with men in Great Britain: comparing methods and estimates from probability and convenience sample surveys. Sex Transm Infect. 2016;92(6):455–63. pmid:26965869
- 69. Lee S, Lee DK. What is the proper way to apply the multiple comparison test? Korean J Anesthesiol. 2018;71(5):353–60. pmid:30157585
- 70. Royston P, Altman DG, Sauerbrei W. Dichotomizing continuous predictors in multiple regression: a bad idea. Stat Med. 2006;25(1):127–41. pmid:16217841
- 71. Simoni JM, Nelson KM, Franks JC, Yard SS, Lehavot K. Are peer interventions for HIV efficacious? A systematic review. AIDS Behav. 2011;15(8):1589–95. pmid:21598034
- 72. Health Research Board. HRB National Drugs Library–Brief Intervention. 2022. Available at: https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/glossary/info/brief_intervention.
- 73. Mattoo SK, Prasad S, Ghosh A. Brief intervention in substance use disorders. Indian J Psychiatry. 2018;60(Suppl 4):S466–S72. pmid:29540915