The Centers for Disease Control released a report on the current trends and risk factors behind Americans’ growing heroin epidemic.
According to the new research, the greatest increases have occurred in groups with historically lower rates of heroin use, including women and people with private insurance and higher incomes.
The people most at risk include non-Hispanic whites, men, 18- to 25-year-olds, people with an annual household income less than $20,000, Medicaid recipients, and the uninsured. But gaps between men and women, low and higher incomes, and people with Medicaid and private insurance have narrowed in the past decade.
The report also found that people using heroin are abusing multiple other substances, especially cocaine and opioid pain relievers. Nearly all (96 percent) people who reported heroin use also reported using at least one other drug in the past year.
All told, NPR reports, more than half a million Americans used heroin in 2013. That represents a nearly 150 percent increase since 2007. In 2013 alone, more than 8,200 Americans died of heroin overdoses.
And that may even be an underestimation, NBC News points out: The report captures the data of thousands of Americans, but misses information for the military, the homeless, and prison populations.
Tom Frieden, M.D., head of the CDC, says the heroin crisis is arising from prescription drug misuse, especially opioid painkiller use. People who abuse painkillers are 40 times more likely to abuse or be dependent on heroin, the study finds.
“They are addicted to prescription opiates because they are essentially the same chemical with the same effect on the brain as heroin,” Frieden told a news conference. “Heroin costs roughly five times less than prescription opiates on the street.”
Users say they move to heroin after they get addicted to prescription drugs—often during use for a medical condition, with a legitimate prescription—and then their supply dries up.
Frieden said “an urgent all-society response” is needed. It would include:
- Tracking the use of prescription painkillers and making sure doctors only prescribe them as necessary.
- Providing treatment to individuals who are addicted to these drugs.
- Cracking down on smuggling and street sales of heroin, to drive up the price and discourage abuse.
- Increasing the use of naloxone, a drug that can be injected into someone with a heroin overdose to reduce the risk of death.
Dr. Frieden also emphasized that for “chronic, non-cancer pain, you really have to look at the risks and benefits” of using prescription opioid pain relievers. “And the risks are very, very clear.”
He said alternatives include safer non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen; physical therapy, and even ice.