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Heroin is Killing White People

By Keri Blakinger 02/01/16

Opiate prescribing patterns could be behind the major disparity. 

Heroin is killing white people
Photo via Shutterstock

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that heroin overdose deaths tripled between 2010 and 2013, and according to a New York Times analysis of the CDC numbers, that means that the death rate for white adults aged 25 to 34 has actually increased. The thing is, no one has figured out why yet, according to VICE News.

“The rising death rates for those young white adults, ages 25 to 34, make them the first generation since the Vietnam War years of the mid-1960s to experience higher death rates in early adulthood than the generation that preceded it,” the Times reported. 

The New York paper’s analysis of more than 60 million death certificates from 1990 to 2014 found “death rates for non-Hispanic whites either rising or flattening for all the adult age groups under 65—a trend that was particularly pronounced in women—even as medical advances sharply reduce deaths from traditional killers like heart disease.”

The driving factor for those deaths seems to be drugs. From 1999 to 2014, the overdose death rate for white adults aged 25 to 34 increased five-fold. For those in the 35 to 44 range, it tripled. 

On the other hand, for most black and Hispanic age groups, the death rates are falling. 

So why the disparity? One expert, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, told VICE that opiate prescribing patterns might have a lot to do with it. He posited that a lot of the overdose deaths are driven by the increase in prescription painkiller use. 

So why does that make it a white issue? Kolodny points to a 2015 study that concluded that white patients were given prescription opioids more frequently than minorities. (However, that study involved Medicare data and thus didn’t include the most affected demographic.)

Author Sam Quinones, who penned Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opioid Epidemic, said he doesn’t think racism in the medical profession explains everything.

"There's an awful lot of doctors out there," he said. "I can't imagine that every single one has that feeling." 

Marcus Anthony Hunter, an assistant professor of Sociology and African American Studies at UCLA, offered another possibility. He told VICE that the urban communities hit so hard by drug epidemics of decades past might have a greater aversion to drug use now. Also, the heavier policing in urban areas means that it’s easier for suburban whites to get away with drug uses and sales.

Whatever the cause, the effect is a different prevailing view toward the best way to address addiction.

"Now that the problems of drugs have noticeably reached the vanilla suburbs, questions and claims of morality have been contested in ways often unavailable to urban minority communities," Hunter said. 

"Where urban minority areas are thought to be amoral breeding grounds, suburban white areas are thought to be upstanding, respectable force fields from the ills of drug use. As it turns out, neither is exactly true," he added.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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