Deaths from heroin overdoses have accelerated, doubling in just two years, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study, which found an across-the-board increase in heroin-related deaths from 2010 to 2012, also confirmed that the demographics of the drug’s usage have undergone a major shift in the past few decades—the typical heroin user today is more likely to be white, suburban, and to have been first hooked through the use of prescription drugs.
Here’s more from the CDC study:
Heroin overdose death rates increased significantly for both sexes, all age groups, all census regions, and all racial/ethnic groups other than American Indians/Alaska Natives. Mortality data for the United States show a 45% increase in heroin deaths from 2010 to 2011, the largest annual percentage increase since 1999. The rapid rise in heroin overdose deaths follows nearly 2 decades of increasing drug overdose deaths in the United States, primarily driven by OPR [opioid pain reliever] drug overdoses. Persons who initiated heroin use after 2000 have reported that heroin often is more readily accessible, less expensive, and offers a more potent high than prescription opioids.
The increase in heroin deaths coincided with a small decrease in the rate of deaths from opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, although fatal prescription drug overdoses remain far more common than heroin deaths. The CDC study found the majority of people who recently started abusing opioids began with prescription drugs, not heroin. In comparison, in the 1960s, more than 80 percent of those who took opioids were heroin users.
“You didn’t usually think of heroin as suburbia, as rural America, and that’s what we’re seeing,” a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman told NPR earlier this year. Many trace this demographic shift back to the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Oxycontin in the mid-1990s, which made the highly addictive drug more widely used and, in turn, fueled demand for heroin, a cheaper and sometimes more accessible substitute. In 2010, the Oxycontin formula was modified to make the drug more difficult to snort and inject (the newer version of the pill turns to a gel when crushed). While some users found ways to continue to abuse the new version of the drug, data indicated that as many as two-thirds of users looked for a high elsewhere, with heroin being the most common replacement.