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Is Heroin Abuse the Next Major Public Health Crisis Facing the U.S.?

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Robyn Burleson

Heroin abuse is one of the major public health and governance crises facing the United States today, and political leaders are urging innovative action plans to reduce the epidemic. In all parts of the country, heroin abuse and addiction is increasing at an alarming rate and has skyrocketed over the past decade. While heroin addiction spans all income levels and social groups, the largest increases can be found within groups that have historically had low rates of use, including women, the upper middle-class, and individuals with private health insurance. More than 120,000 people have died of an opioid overdose since 2008, and overdose deaths have nearly tripled since 2012. More Americans now die every year from drug overdoses than they do from car crashes.

Two main causes appear to be driving the trend: the over-prescription of opioid pain relievers and the availability of cheap heroin. Legal prescription drugs are the most likely path people take to heroin. People who become addicted to painkillers often switch to heroin because it is so much cheaper. A dose of OxyContin, a common prescription painkiller, costs an average of $50 in Massachusetts, for example, while the same dosage of heroin costs only $10. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 45 percent of heroin users are also addicted to painkillers.


Photo credit: Steve Helber/AP

Earlier this fall, President Obama traveled to Charleston, West Virginia to meet with community members regarding the epidemic, which is especially rampant in that region. The rate of fatal heroin overdoses in Charleston is currently more than double the national average. The epidemic is damaging the local economy, reducing the workforce, and overwhelming West Virginia’s social services. Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster described to the New York Times that his officers deal with “a community of zombies walking around in need of treatment.” As a result, Obama explained that we should focus more on treatment instead of punishment: “We should approach substance abuse as an opportunity to intervene, not incarcerate.”

The following day after the Charleston roundtable discussion, the President released his National Drug Control Strategy to fund treatment programs and focus on tracing the sources of heroin. White House officials announced a plan to invest $133 million for treatment, painkiller prescriber training, and prevention programs, as well as intra-state monitoring programs to eliminate “doctor shopping.” There will be a greater focus on educating parents, youth, and patients who are prescribed painkillers about the dangers of abusing painkillers. The plan encourages partnerships between law enforcement, public health officials, and community-based efforts to get at the root of the epidemic. Officials also announced that private corporations like CBS, the New York Times, and Google plan to donate millions of dollars in media space for Public Service Announcements about the risks of opioids produced by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

While speaking with a mother who lost her son after he died of a lethal overdose, Obama noted, “This crisis is taking lives, it’s destroying families, it’s shattering communities all across the country. And that’s the thing about substance abuse—it doesn’t discriminate.” Innovative, bipartisan, and intersectoral solutions are needed to combat this urgent issue.

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