Heroin use in the United States has risen five-fold in the past decade and dependence on the drug has more than tripled, with the biggest jumps among whites and men with low incomes and little education, researchers said on Wednesday.
Whites aged 18 to 44 accounted for the biggest rise in heroin addiction, which has been fueled in part by the misuse of opioid prescription drugs.
The findings are troubling because the people most affected have few resources to deal with the problem, said Dr. Silvia Martins, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and her colleagues.
"We are seeing that heroin use has increased in the past 10 years," Martins said in a phone interview. "It is more prominent among whites with lower incomes and education and young adults."
Heroin use, which includes those who have tried the drug but not become dependent on it, and addiction also rose more among unmarried adults. Although a jump was seen among women, it as was not as prominent as for men.
The researchers found no differences in heroin use or addiction among the major regions of the country.
The findings, published online in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, followed a statement from the American College of Physicians calling for drug addiction and substance abuse disorders to be treated as a chronic medical condition like diabetes or hypertension.
It also coincided with the expected appointment of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to head a federal commission to combat the problem. Christie has declared opioid drug abuse a public health crisis.
Martins agreed drug addiction should be treated as an illness.
"By recognizing it is a disease, more people will become aware that they need to seek help, or if they are frequent users, to know that addiction is preventable," she said.
Martins and her colleagues uncovered the trend by analyzing two studies, one from 2001-2002 and another from 2012-2013, and data from 43,000 long-term heroin users.
In 2001-2002, there were similar rates of heroin use between whites and non-whites, but by 2013 there was a significant race gap, according to the study.
Martins called for expanding treatment programs, overdose prevention and medication-assisted treatment, and for a change in doctors' prescribing practices for opioids.
"I think some level of regulation is needed," she said. "At the same time people who truly need that medication should get it but with greater supervision."
(Reporting by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Patrick Enright and Paul Simao)