Once thought to be a problem primarily affecting urban teens living in impoverished areas, heroin abuse now more commonly affects middle-class suburban white people in their early 20s, Health Day News reported.
In a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers surveyed 2,800 people undergoing treatment for heroin abuse in the United States. People who reported first using heroin in the 1960s said it was the first drug they abused, but around 75 percent of the people who began abusing heroin after 2000 reported previously abusing prescription painkillers.
The researchers suspect the rise of prescription drug abuse served as a gateway to heroin addiction for many users. While prescription drugs can be very costly, heroin can be obtained cheaply and easily.
"In the past, heroin was a drug that introduced people to narcotics," study author Theodore J. Cicero, of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis said in a press release. "But what we're seeing now is that most people using heroin begin with prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet or Vicodin, and only switch to heroin when their prescription drug habits get too expensive."
Today, the average heroine user is 23 years old and tends to live in a suburban or rural area. More than 90 percent of the study subjects who reported that they began abusing heroin in the past decade were white. However, the study authors acknowledged that their research was limited, since they only analyzed participants seeking treatment for their addiction.
Overall, the researchers said they hope more research into the changing nature of heroin addiction will help lead to better control of the problem.
"The overdose deaths and hospitalizations are symptoms of a problem that we really need to deal with," Cicero said. "You can't effectively treat people or prevent addiction unless you know why they are taking drugs, and we don't really have a handle on that yet. Unfortunately, the problem with heroin is it's the most powerful opiate ever created, and even if people think they are being careful, it can kill."