U.S. Heroin Overdose Rate Nearly Quadruples

As prescription painkillers become more difficult to abuse, the face of heroin addiction is changing

Robert Llewellyn/Corbis

In recent years, the words “drug epidemic” have mainly been used to describe an ongoing public health crisis related to prescription painkiller abuse. But new information released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that use of another, related drug has boomed—heroin overdose deaths not only nearly quadrupled over a 13-year-period, but doubled from 2010 to 2012.

The new data shows big changes in heroin addiction and death, which used to be associated with populations that were urban, middle-aged, black and coastal. Now, the average heroin overdose is a person who is white, young and living in the Midwest. And men are up to four times more likely to die of a heroin overdose than women.

A link between painkiller abuse and eventual heroin use has long been recognized by experts, who predict that one in 15 people who abuse prescription pain kills will try heroin within a decade. But as law enforcement and doctors work to make painkillers less accessible, their efforts have had unintended consequences—people addicted to prescription drugs turn to heroin.

Behavioral pharmacologist Kelly Dunn told HealthDay:

“Heroin’s cheaper and easily available, and we’re seeing increases in places that traditionally haven't had much heroin use,” Dunn said. “Once people are dependent on prescription drugs, it's very rare for them to stop on their own with no treatment. If the drugs are suddenly less abusable, they will switch to something else that will alleviate withdrawal.”

The rise in heroin overdoses is giving new meaning to the phrase “gateway drug,” addiction psychiatrist Howard Forman told Medical Daily. He notes that understanding more about the changing face of heroin use will hopefully lead to better education for the public and physicians. It’s a sentiment reflected by the CDC, which hopes that “identifying populations at high risk of heroin-related drug-poisoning death can help target prevention strategies.”

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