Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Patterns, determinants and barriers of health and social service utilization among young urban crack users in Brazil

Marcelo Santos Cruz1, Tarcisio Andrade2, Francisco I Bastos3, Erotildes Leal1, Neilane Bertoni3, Lara Lipman1, Chantal Burnett4 and Benedikt Fischer45*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Psychiatry, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

2 Department of Community and Family Health, Federal University of Bahia, Salvador, Brazil

3 Institute of Communication and Scientific Information & Technology for Health, Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

4 Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University, 2400 - 515 W Hasting St, Vancouver, BC V6B 5K3, Canada

5 Social & Epidemiological Research, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, Canada

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BMC Health Services Research 2013, 13:536  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-13-536

Published: 28 December 2013



Crack use is prevalent across the Americas, and specifically among marginalized urban street drug users in Brazil. Crack users commonly feature multiple physical and mental health problems, while low rates of and distinct barriers to help service use have been observed in these populations. This study examined profiles and determinants of social and health service utilization, and unmet service needs, in a two-city sample of young (18–24 years), marginalized crack users in Brazil.


N = 160 study participants were recruited by community-based methods from impoverished neighborhoods in the cities of Rio de Janeiro (n = 81) and Salvador (n = 79). A mixed methods protocol was used. Participants’ drug use, health, and social and health service utilization characteristics were assessed by an anonymous interviewer-administered questionnaire completed in a community setting; descriptive statistics on variables of interest were computed. Service needs and barriers were further assessed by way of several focus groups with the study population; narrative data were qualitatively analyzed. The study protocol was approved by institutional ethics review boards; data were collected between November 2010 and June 2011.


The majority of the sample was male, without stable housing, and used other drugs (e.g., alcohol, marijuana). About half the sample reported physical and mental health problems, yet most had not received medical attention for these problems. Only small minorities had utilized locally available social or health services; utilization appeared to be influenced by sex, race and housing characteristics in both sites. Participants cited limited service resources, lack of needs-specific professional skills, bureaucratic barriers and stigma as obstacles to better service access. However, most respondents stated strong interest and need for general social, health and treatment services designed for the study population, for which various key features were emphasized as important.


The study contributes substantive evidence to current discussions about the development and utilization of health and treatment interventions for crack use in Brazil. Based on our data, crack users’ social, service needs are largely unmet; these gaps appear to partly root in systemic barriers of access to existing services, while improved targeted service offers for the target population seem to be needed also.

Crack use; Health services; Treatment; Barriers; Brazil; Marginalized populations