Heroin Becoming Equal Opportunity Killer
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report in July 2014 charting the rise in drug poisoning deaths involving heroin between the years 2002 and 2011. The report revealed that while deaths among the Hispanic and black populations of the U.S. rose slightly during this period, deaths among the country’s white population more than doubled.
Number of Heroin-Related Deaths Grows
The information gathered by the CDC shows that the total number of heroin-related drug poisoning deaths in the United States during this 10-year period more than doubled from 2,089 in 2002 to 4,397 in 2011. Most of this increase occurred within the 18- to 44-year-old age group, and within that group, the sharpest increase occurred among white Americans.
In 2002, the highest overall number of heroin overdose deaths came from the non-Hispanic black population aged 45 to 64, and the second-highest number came from the Hispanic population aged 45 to 64. These rates were 2.2 per population of 100,000, and 2.0 per 100,000. Among people aged 18 to 44, the rate of overdose deaths for non-Hispanic whites was already the highest, at 1.4 deaths per 100,000.
However, the following 10 years saw heroin-related drug poisoning deaths among the non-Hispanic black population and Hispanic population remain almost the same. Among whites aged 45 to 64, the number of heroin overdose deaths also remained practically unchanged. In contrast, heroin overdose deaths among white people aged 18 to 44 shot up from 1.4 per 100,000 to 3.8 per 100,000. The number of deaths among whites aged 18 to 44 in 2011 was more than the number of deaths among Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks aged 18 to 44 combined.
The recent CDC report is not alone in demonstrating the increase in heroin-related deaths among the white population. The Drug Abuse Warning Network has reported on heroin-related emergency room visits between 2004 and 2011, and the information confirms the CDC report in multiple ways. First, it shows that heroin emergencies were already slightly higher among whites in 2004 than among non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics. It also shows that emergency room visits among whites rose significantly through 2011, while figures for the other population groups remained steady. In all, heroin-related ER visits among whites rose from about 80,000 to more than 160,000.
Prescription Drug Abuse Leads to Heroin Use
In the last decade or so, the nature of heroin abuse in the United States has changed. Many new heroin addicts now begin to use this illegal drug after first abusing prescription opioids. People who develop an addiction to prescription painkillers generally find it both difficult and expensive to obtain these drugs after their prescriptions have run out. Some of these people discover that illegal opioids like heroin are actually cheaper and easier to purchase from dealers.
Various studies have shown that the cost of buying prescription opioids on the street can be $80 for one 80-milligram tablet. In contrast, a comparable quantity of heroin can cost as little as $10. Heroin is much riskier, as it is often laced with impurities and can vary greatly in strength. However, some people who are suffering from opioid addiction choose to accept the risks because they can no longer afford the prescription pills.
As many as 90 percent of new heroin users in the last decade were white and middle class, according to a May 2014 study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. The same study found that 75 percent of these new users abused prescription pain drugs before switching to heroin.
This means that, for the first time, heroin has become more of a middle class “suburban” drug than a drug for inner-city residents of lower income. The middle class population, which remains disproportionately white, has been more likely to have health insurance coverage and to take prescription medications. As a result, this population has been disproportionately affected by the prescription drug abuse epidemic and the related rise in heroin abuse.