Silvia Martins, the lead author of the new study, told Lindsey Bever of The Washington Post that increases in heroin use and addiction may be related to several factors, including prescription opioid abuse and market forces that favor cheaper alternatives to pills.
"We saw that most of them had already used prescription opioids," Martins, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told Bever. "We saw that in 2001-2002, only 36 percent of white heroin users reported they had already used prescription opioids before. Now, more than half of them — 53 percent of them — said they had used prescription opioids before. So we believe there is a link to the prescription opioid epidemic. Other potential reasons for that are the fact that heroin has become cheaper in recent years in the U.S."
The study, published in the academic journal JAMA Psychiatry, looked at data from two nationally representative household surveys from 2001-2002 and 2012-2013, analyzing responses from nearly 80,000 respondents. It showed that the number of people who reported using heroin at some point in their lives has climbed over the decade from 0.33 percent of the adult population to 1.61 percent, or roughly 3.8 million Americans. The number of those who met the criteria for heroin use disorder, or addiction, more than tripled from 0.21 percent in 2001-2002 to 0.69 percent in 2012-2013, according to Bever.
Synthetic opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, are the main cause of overdose deaths across the U.S., according to the CDC. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose in 2015. Nearly 13,000 people died last year from heroin overdose alone.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday creating a commission to cope with the escalating epidemic. The commission, which will be led by Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will work to "combat and treat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction, and the opioid crisis," the White House said in a statement.