The new face of heroin: Today's users different than decades ago

The demographic of heroin users has shifted dramatically over the last 50 years, according to a new paper published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The study finds heroin users today tend to be white men and women in their 20s, who live in suburban and rural areas. Five decades ago, in the 1960s, opioid use was more common among young men living in urban areas, according to researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. Additionally, they found today's heroin users frequently turn to heroin after getting addicted to prescription painkillers.

"Our surveys have shown a marked shift in the demographics of heroin users seeking treatment over the past several decades," write the authors in their study. "We found that heroin use is not simply an inner-city problem among minority populations but now extends to white, middle-class people living outside of large urban areas, and these recent users exhibit the same drug use patterns as those abusing prescription opioids. In this connection, our data indicate that many heroin users transitioned from prescription opioids."

For the study, the authors examined data of nearly 2,800 patients through self-reported surveys on heroin and drug use collected during intake at addiction treatment centers.

The authors found heroin users in the 1960s were, on average, 16.5 years old and a majority were male. Among that group, 80 percent used heroin from the start of their drug abuse.

But these days, heroin users are 23 years old on average, and split between men and women. Nearly 90 percent of users in the last decade were white, and more than 75 percent live outside of urban areas and were introduced to heroin through prescription opioids.

This growing use of the street drug has led many lawmakers throughout the country to take action to combat abuse and accidental overdose. Currently, there are more than 50 programs throughout the country that aim to widen access to naloxone, a drug that can instantly reverse heroin overdose. Just yesterday, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced his office will provide the New York City Police Department with funding that will allow 19,500 officers to carry naloxone kits.

Heroin's lower cost, as well as its accessibility, has made it the opioid of choice among today's users. Prescription painkillers like OxyContin can cost upward of $80, whereas an addict can get a hit of heroin for as little as $10.

Additionally, it has become more difficult to abuse drugs like OxyContin through inhalation and injection. In 2010, pharmaceutical companies reformulated the drug compounds so it's no longer easy to crush or dissolve them.

In April, CBS News spoke with a young woman whose life had been turned upside-down due to heroin abuse. Stephanie King, a college student in Delaware, began taking Percocet after she suffered a severe stomach infection. But when law enforcement officials stopped her doctor from writing scripts for painkillers, King turned to heroin.

"It's really cheap -- and it's everywhere," King told CBS News. '"It slowly crumbled with the pills. With the heroin, it was just done. It was game over -- I needed it every second of every day."

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