Heroin Use Rises Among White Adults

A bag of heroin powder
(Image credit: Di Studio/Shutterstock)

Heroin use is on the rise, particularly among white adults, a new study finds.

The number of adults who reported using heroin in 2012 to 2013 was five times the number of adults who reported using the drug in 2001 to 2002, according to the study. In addition, the number of adults who reported being dependent on the drug tripled over the same time period, the researchers found.

The findings suggest that an estimated 1.1 million Americans developed a heroin-use disorder over the study period, according to the study, published today (March 29) in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

"Heroin is an urgent concern in the United States," with risks from the drug including overdoses, death, infectious diseases and harm to social relationships, the researchers, led by Dr. Silvia Martins, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City, wrote in the study. [America's Opioid-Use Epidemic: 5 Startling Facts]

In the study, the researchers looked at two years of data — 2001 to 2002 and 2012 to 2013 — taken from a national survey called the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). A total of nearly 80,000 adults participated in the surveys.

The NESARC survey is not a questionnaire that participants fill out; rather, researchers interviewed the participants in person. The survey included questions about whether a participant had ever used heroin in his or her life, as well as questions that assessed whether an individual had a heroin-use disorder, according to the study. A heroin-use disorder means that a person is unable to stop using the drug even if he or she would like to, and the drug interferes with the person's life and social functioning.

The researchers found that in 2001 to 2002, 0.3 percent of the adults participating in the survey reported that they had ever used heroin; and in 2012 to 2013, 1.6 percent of the adults in the survey reported ever using the drug, according to the study.

The percentage of adults with a heroin-use disorder increased from 0.2 percent in 2001 to 2002 to 0.7 percent in 2012 to 2013, the researchers found.

Heroin use increased more among white adults than it did among adults of other races, the researchers found. In 2012 to 2013, 1.9 percent of white adults reported that they had used the drug at any point in their life, up from 0.3 percent in 2001 to 2002. Among adults of all races, excluding those who are white, 1.1 percent reported having ever used heroin in 2012 to 2013, up from 0.3 percent in 2001 to 2002.

The researchers also noted that heroin use increased more among men than women. Heroin-use disorders also increased more among less educated and poorer individuals, the researchers found.

Prescription opioids appear to have played a role in the increased use of heroin among white adults, the researchers found. In 2001 to 2002, 36 percent of white adults who used heroin reported that they had previously abused prescription opioids — in other words, they had taken the drugs for "nonmedical" reasons — before they started to use heroin, according to the study. By 2012 to 2013, 53 percent of white adults who used heroin reported that they had first abused prescription opioids.  

"Because the effects of heroin seem so similar to widely available prescription opioids, heroin use appears to have become more socially acceptable among suburban and rural whites," Martins said in a statement.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.