Glee actor Cory Monteith's death from a combination of heroin and alcohol underscores alarming increases in heroin overdose deaths that may be fueled by growing addictions to prescription painkillers.
Monteith, who died July 13 in Vancouver, publicly spoke of his struggles with addiction and in April had checked himself into drug treatment. He did not specific the drugs he used, but experts are seeing an uptick of heroin use — and overdoses — as people addicted to opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone, reach for heroin when pills become hard to get.
"The United States has seen a spike in new initiates of heroin abuse," Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told Congress in April.
Police nationwide report to DEA that young adults who are addicted to the prescription painkillers turn to cheaper heroin when they can't afford or can't find the pills, Leonhart said. Pharmaceutical companies have been reformulating pills so they can't be crushed, and a growing number of states have been cracking down on doctors and pharmacies that improperly distribute the painkillers.
Prescription painkillers are among the most commonly abused drugs in the United States and have similar effects to heroin. Recent research suggests that painkiller abuse can lead to heroin abuse. Nearly half of teens and young adults surveyed who inject heroin reported that they previously abused prescription painkillers, the National Institute on Drug Abuse said.
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After years of stability, heroin overdoses, many in combination with prescription painkillers, jumped in 2007, says Christopher M. Jones, a health scientist at the injury center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 1999 to 2006, 1,800 to 2,200 people died each year from heroin overdoses. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of deaths jumped to more than 3,000 annually. Early data from states indicates the trend will continue, he said.
"The heroin goes hand in hand with prescription opioids," Jones said.
A 2011 survey found 4.2 million Americans age 12 or older reported they had used heroin at least once in their lives. Nearly a quarter of those who use heroin become addicted to it, the Institute said.
The Community Epidemiology Work Group, a network of researchers from major metropolitan areas who report epidemiological drug abuse trends to the National Institutes of Health, noted in their report last year that heroin abuse was growing in Boston, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Honolulu, Minneapolis, San Diego, Seattle and Texas.
The researchers also found growing numbers of young people seeking treatment for heroin addictions. In Denver, people younger than 25 accounted for 28% of all admissions for heroin treatment in 2011, up from 13% in 2007.