Heroin users trending older, white, suburban
A new study confirms what law enforcement and substance abuse treatment providers have long contended: Heroin use, fueled by abuse of prescription painkillers, is growing fastest among white suburbanites in their 20s.
The research was published in a recent edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry. Using survey data from a national sample of about 3,000 patients entering substance abuse treatment programs, researchers found the shift in demographics of heroin users. While people using heroin in the late 1960s were largely teenage boys whose first opioid drug was heroin, today’s users tend to be equal numbers men and women, in their mid-20s, and began abusing prescription drugs before trying heroin.
About 90 percent of the recent respondents were white; in the 1960s and ’70s, heroin users were roughly equally divided between white and minority groups, researchers said. Researchers caution that heroin use is not decreasing in cities; it is growing overall but fastest in suburban and rural areas.
And it is there where prescription drugs seem to play a larger role, said Theodore J. Cicero, PhD, lead author of the study and professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St Louis. People get addicted to painkillers, then turn to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to access, he said.
“Physicians have to recognize that middle-class, white patients may be taking heroin and (patients) need to be aware of the health risks that go with that, including HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and overdose,” Cicero told the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“Just because someone is experiencing pain doesn’t mean they need an opioid,” Hurh said. “Before prescribing opioids, doctors should consider alternatives, and assess whether their patients are at an elevated risk for abuse because of a history of addiction or other factors,” he said.
In 2013, researchers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) analyzed data collected from 2002 to 2011 for the National Survey on Drug Use and found a staggering 79.5 percent of people who reported that they began using heroin in the last year had previously abused prescription drugs. Only 3.6 percent of the respondents said they used heroin before abusing prescription drugs. Overall, the incidence of heroin use was 19 times higher for people who had abused prescription drugs.
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