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60-Second Health

Heroin Has Expanded Its User Base

Compared with 50 years ago, today's heroin user is whiter, more suburban and had prescription opioids for a gateway. Dina Fine Maron reports
 

In the last half century, heroin contributed to thousands of deaths, from Janis Joplin to Philip Seymour Hoffman to legions of people now remembered only by their friends and families. 
 
But compared with 50 years ago, the drug’s consumers look strikingly different now. Back then, a typical user was often an inner-city minority male whose first drug experience was with heroin, at about the age of 17. Today’s users are mostly non-urban white men and women in their late twenties whose gateway drug was a prescription opioid.
 
The findings come from surveys of some 2,800 heroin users who self-reported demographic information and other data when they entered treatment centers. The results are in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. [Theodore J. Cicero et al, The Changing Face of Heroin Use in the United States: A Retrospective Analysis of the Past 50 Years]
 
Up until 1980, whites and nonwhite sought treatment in equal numbers. But in the last decade, nearly 90 percent of treatment center patients were white.
 
Recent users said that heroin became their drug of choice because it was both cheaper and easier to get than prescription drugs. Half of today’s users said that if they could they’d prefer prescription drugs because those opioids are “cleaner.”
 
The researchers note that their study is limited because it includes only users who sought treatment. But the data seem to confirm the growing suspicion that heroin has left the city and is now comfortably ensconced in the suburbs.
 
—Dina Fine Maron
 
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]
 

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