The use of heroin nearly doubled in United States after the introduction of a reformulated version of OxyContin, a widely used opioid painkiller, according to a new report by federal health officials.
The study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration looked at data from a national survey on drug use, conducted annually from 2002 through 2011, and found that 25 million Americans over the age of 12 had used prescription painkillers “non-medically” during that period.
Researchers found a “strong association” between the abuse of painkillers and the use of heroin, with abusers 19 times more likely to try heroin for the first time than non-abusers.
About 3.6 percent of the people who abused pain relievers tried heroin within the next five years.
“Prescription pain relievers when used properly for their intended purpose can be of enormous benefit to patients, but their nonmedical use can lead to addiction, serious physical harm and even death,” said Dr. Peter Delany, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality.
“This report shows that it can also greatly increase an individual’s risk of turning to heroin use – thus adding a new dimension of potential harm.”
In recent years there has been growing concern among health officials that abusers of narcotic painkillers were shifting to heroin, particularly after the introduction of a tamper resistant version of OxyContin by Purdue Pharma.
Drug abusers found that the reformulated version of OxyContin that was introduced in 2010 was more difficult to crush and gave them less of a high. As a result, demand for the new reformulated version was much lower than that for the old form of the drug, which produced highs similar to heroin when it was snorted or injected. The street price of the new formulation was nearly 20 to 30 percent lower than that of the old version.
The reformulation of OxyContin coincided with a surge in heroin use.
The number of people reporting that they have used heroin rose from 373,000 people in 2007 to 620,000 people in 2011. Similarly, the number of people dependent on heroin climbed from 179,000 people in 2007 to 369,000 people in 2011. The number of people starting to use heroin also increased, from 106,000 people to 178,000 people during the same period.
Heroin initiation rates went up sharply in all regions of the country, except the South where the rate stayed the lowest in the nation. Heroin initiation rates were lowest among African-Americans than other racial and ethnic groups.
While opioid pain relievers could serve as a “gateway” drug to heroin, researchers emphasized that the vast majority of people who use painkillers do not use heroin.
“Prescription pain relievers have a similar pharmacological effect as that of heroin, given their similarities in chemical structure. Although the findings indicate that NMPR (non-medical use of pain relievers) use is a common step on the pathway to heroin initiation, most NMPR users do not progress to heroin use,” the report says.