Whites Account for the Entire Jump in Heroin Deaths

Heroin overdose deaths have surged in recent years. Now the Centers for Disease Control reports that the increase has occurred almost entirely among whites.

This chart comes from a CDC report looking at fatal overdoses involving heroin during the decade from 2002 through 2011. In 2002, the death rate was highest among blacks from 45 to 65 years old. The rate for blacks and Hispanics remained statistically unchanged through 2011, while the death rate for whites increased dramatically among all age groups. That rate more than doubled.

Other data bear this out. A look at emergency room visits from a government data set called the Drug Abuse Warning Network shows a sharp rise in heroin-related ER trips by whites, with no corresponding jump for other demographic groups. These estimates come with a very high level of uncertainty, but the trend line is clear:

The reasons for this aren’t obvious. The current heroin epidemic has been linked to prescription drug abuse, which kills more Americans than illicit heroin and cocaine combined. “Some recent studies suggest that three out of four people who are on heroin started on prescription opioids, so in some ways it’s a single epidemic,” CDC director Tom Frieden said in a July 1 briefing for reporters.

The crackdown on “pill mills” at which addicts can easily get prescription narcotics may have increased demand for heroin on the street. Recent CDC data suggest that Florida has begun to reverse its prescription drug problem, with only a slight increase in heroin deaths.

Blacks still remain far more likely to be arrested for drug possession, even though blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates. If whites were more likely than other races to abuse prescription painkillers and turn to heroin, that could explain the disparity in overdose deaths. But it’s not clear that this is the case—or if it is, why.

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