We Need to Keep the “Heroin Epidemic” in Perspective

I think we need to be more careful about parsing when it comes to reporting on drug overdose deaths. In this recent Cincinnati Enquirer article, I take issue with how the issue is presented and part of the issue is the CDC study itself. Consider this bit from the article:

“More people died from drug overdoses in the United States last year than any other year on record. It’s an epidemic that claimed the lives of more than 47,000 Americans. That’s more people than the Great American BallPark can seat.

Heroin, painkillers and the like accounted for more than half of those.”

Heroin leads that sentence and gives the impression that heroin is at epidemic levels, as is often touted by the media and even the CDC study. Yet, in the CDC report we get this:

“Natural and semisynthetic opioids, which include the most commonly prescribed opioid pain relievers, oxycodone and hydrocodone, continue to be involved in more overdose deaths than any other opioid type.”

So, why does the CDC itself have the alarming line, “Opioids—primarily prescription pain relievers and heroin—are the main driver of overdose deaths.” And why does the reporting lead with heroin over painkillers in the above sentence?

It just should read, “Opioids, primarily prescription pain relievers, are the main driver of overdose deaths.” Heroin is far from a primary driver.

Yes, heroin deaths have gone up in recent years, but we need to maintain perspective on the base of the increase, i.e., heroin use in the United States (and of course it differs regionally; it is higher in the Midwest) is relatively rare compared to other legal and illicit drugs.

Just for comparison…the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2013 found that in 2013, 35,473 Americans reported using pain relievers for non-medical reasons in 2013, compared to just 4,812 for heroin, respectively.

In short, increases in heroin use and associated overdoses look alarming when not put in the context of an already low base.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t things we can do to help those dealing with heroin issues, like needle exchange programs and overall shifting our focus to that of a health problem rather than a criminal problem.

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