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U.S. heroin use growing, mainly among whites, report finds

A heroin user shows the markings on a

A heroin user shows the markings on a bag of heroin on February 6, 2014 in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

The number of U.S. heroin users has grown by nearly 300,000 over a decade, with the bulk of the increase among whites, according to a new government report.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tuesday released the report, which is based on annual face-to-face surveys of about 67,000 Americans -- the government's main source of data on use of illegal drugs.

The findings mirror trends seen in earlier reports, which noted marked increases in heroin use in people who are white and living outside of major cities, said Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University epidemiologist who researches drug-abuse issues.

On Long Island, records show that the number of users who have died of heroin or opioid pill overdoses since 2012 have been overwhelmingly white.

While fatal heroin overdoses recorded on Long Island fell from 145 in 2013 to 137 last year, some local addiction experts expressed skepticism over the decrease, saying it did not reflect the rise in heroin abuse and opioid-related deaths they had seen through their work at treatment facilities in 2014.

More than 8,200 people die of heroin overdoses in the United States each year, with nearly twice that many dying annually from prescription opioid pain pills, federal data show.

The new report found that people who abused opioid painkillers were 40 times more likely to abuse heroin.

The heroin death rate quadrupled over a decade, with most of the fatal overdoses involving other drugs at the same time -- most often cocaine.

Deaths involving opioid painkillers have been leveling off but continue to be more common than heroin-related deaths, government statistics show.

In recent surveys, nearly 3 in every 1,000 Americans said they had used heroin in the previous year. That's up from less than 2 per 1,000 about a decade ago, a 62 percent increase that translates to hundreds of thousands more people, government researchers said.

According to the new report, while heroin use more than doubled among whites, it seemed to level off in other racial and ethnic groups.

But it grew among different income levels, in different parts of the country. And the rate of heroin use doubled in women -- a more dramatic rise than what was seen in men.

For years, officials have focused their worry on misuse of prescription opioid painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin. Experts say recent restrictions on prescribing such painkillers may be reducing illicit supplies of them at a time when the heroin supply has been increasing.

Heroin has become a popular alternative. It is essentially the same chemical as that in the prescription painkillers, but it costs roughly five times less on the street, said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden.

"An increasing number of people are primed for heroin use because they were addicted to an opioid painkiller," Frieden said.

On Long Island, the abundance of heroin comes from Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, officials said.

Considered the world's largest, most profitable drug-dealing organization, Sinaloa, named for the northern Mexican state where the cartel got its start, does tens of millions of dollars of business each year in the New York-Long Island region, officials said, part of an estimated $3 billion or more it makes off narcotics sales in the United States annually.

With Kevin Deutsch

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