Many more people are dying from heroin overdoses than in previous years, according to the latest available statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An analysis of those numbers and what might be responsible for the uptick in heroin deaths appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday.
In general, drug overdose deaths have been on the rise for the past two decades, but the number of deaths from heroin use is up by 39%.
That means 5,927 people died after using heroin in 2012 and that number jumped to 8,260 deaths in 2013. Those are the latest numbers available.
This is the third year in a row that heroin deaths have increased.
The silver lining, if there is such a thing in a report about drug fatalities, is that deaths from prescription drug abuse have remained fairly stable from 2011-2013; that’s after those deaths peaked in 2010.
For perspective: The number of people dying after abusing drugs is higher than the number of people killed in traffic accidents.
About half of all drug overdose deaths are related to the abuse of prescription drugs.
The majority of the pharmaceuticals people abuse are opioids, common powerful painkillers like oxycontin and vicodin.
It’s estimated 25 million people abused prescription opioids, according to the New England Journal of Medicine analysis. That’s for the years between 2002 and 2011.
Federal, state and local governments have been cracking down on illegal prescription drug sales with some success, according to the Journal study. That may have a connection to the rise in problems with heroin.
Law enforcement has shut down many pill mills. Governments have created rules that tighten prescription practices. Drug manufacturers have been creating more abuse-deterrent versions of their drugs.
All this effort to stop prescription drug abuse has made it much more of a challenge for addicts to get their drug of choice.
That may mean they turn to heroin, a drug that gives users a similar kind of high, but can be cheaper and now may be easier to get, according to the Journal study.
Opiate pain medications cost the uninsured about $1 per milligram, so a 60-milligram pill will cost $60. You can obtain the equivalent amount of heroin for about one-tenth the price.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, almost half of young people who use heroin today started with prescription opioids.
In the 1960s, heroin users were usually men who started using around an average age of 16. They were most likely from low-income neighborhoods, and when they turned to opioids, heroin was their first choice.
Now, more than 50 years later, a study from The Journal of the American Medical Association paints a very different picture.
Today’s typical heroin addict starts using at 23, is more likely to live in the affluent suburbs and was likely unwittingly led to heroin through painkillers prescribed by his or her doctor.
As the opioid supply becomes more limited, abuse and overdose death rates related to these painkillers seem to go down, according to the Journal report. The authors of the study saw this in looking at six prescription drugs — oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydropmorphone, fentanyl, morphine and tramadol — in the RADARS system, operated by the Denver Health and Hospital Authority. The system tracks the availability, abuse and diversion of these drugs.
The study authors found the supply of these drugs increased greatly in the 1990s through 2010, and then stabilized from 2011 to 2013.
They saw the parallel increase in heroin-related deaths in this same period.