Study Finds Rise In Heroin Use More Pronounced Among Whites

By McCarton Ackerman 05/13/15

While pronounced among whites, heroin use was up among all ethnicities.

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Heroin use has risen across the board in the U.S. over the last 12 months, but a new study from Columbia University has found this increase is even more pronounced among whites who abuse opioid painkillers. The findings were published in the latest issue of the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Researchers at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health examined both the frequency of non-medical prescription opioid use and the risk of heroin-related behaviors. Examining data from the 67,500-person sample in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, they looked at changes in non-prescription drug and heroin use across racial and ethnic groups between 2002-05 and 2008-2011.

Although the risk of past-year heroin use, abuse, and dependence increased for all races and ethnicities between 2008-2011, the increase was particularly marked for Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites. Heroin use was significant among Hispanics who used opioids anywhere from one to 29 days in the last year, while blacks and whites who used prescription opioids anywhere from 100-365 days in the past year also displayed significant increases in heroin use rates.

“We found that individuals endorsing past year non-prescription opioids who also use heroin are likely to be in more advanced stages of their drug use,” said Silvia Martins, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health. “The individuals tend to use prescription opioids as a substitute for heroin when heroin is unavailable, to augment a heroin-induced ‘high,’ to ‘treat’ withdrawal symptoms, and to curb heroin use. This is alarming and raises concern since injection drug use among prescription opioid users can contribute to the spread of HIV.”

Martins concluded her study by suggesting that all non-medical users of prescription opioids, regardless of race and ethnicity, should be the focus on public health efforts to prevent heroin use.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last January that heroin-related overdose deaths jumped 39% between 2012 and 2013, from 5,925 deaths in 2012 to 8,257 deaths in 2013. That same organization also confirmed last March that heroin overdose deaths have quadrupled since 2000, from 0.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 2.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2013.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.