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Heroin deaths double after painkiller crackdown

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Posted at 1:18 PM, Oct 02, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-02 15:21:57-04

Heroin deaths are exploding.

Deaths from heroin overdose doubled in the United States from 2010 to 2012, according to a new report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If it’s your family member, the human cost is severe. This is a true public health crisis,” said Michael Lyons, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Cincinnati Health Center. “It’s not just someone else’s problem.”

In 2012, 3,635 people died from heroin overdose in the United States. The deaths reached across all age ranges, but more occurred in the northeast and the south. Ohio and Kentucky were among the hardest states hit.

Many people who become addicted to heroin are living a normal life until they become addicted to opiate painkillers like Morphine or Oxycontin. The increase in heroin use is due in part to cracking down on the prescription painkillers, Lyons said.

“That’s reduced the supply and then all people are left with is abusing heroin,” Lyons said. “It’s not just people who are choosing to use the drugs for recreational purposes. There are far more people addicted from their treatment.”

Three-fourths of new heroin users previously abused prescription opiates, the CDC said. Heroin is also an opiate, and it’s cheaper than prescription drugs.

“There's an enormous health care cost to heroin overdoses. There's a human cost in terms of deaths. There’s also a cost to people who are injured and don’t fully recover from the overdose,” Lyons said.

There are other consequences to heroin and opioid addiction. Among them are crime and diseases from shooting up: hepatitis, HIV and infections of the heart.

There are 1.5 million chronic heroin users in the U.S., according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The CDC study looked at death certificates from 28 states.

Getting a grip on heroin use will require more research into how opiate drugs are prescribed, and why some people are more susceptible to addiction.

“We were told that opioids were safe, that we needed to treat pain and that patient satisfaction was important,” Lyons said. “To prevent addiction from happening, we have to balance the risks of untreated pain with the risk of addiction.”

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on twitter at @GavinStern or email him at gavin.stern@scripps.com