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"Heroin is a growing epidemic.”

That’s how a spokesperson for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) described the drug after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Media outlets like NBC News and The Huffington Post followed suit with similarly worded headlines.

Wondering if the panic is legitimate? Here’s a quick fact check.

1. Is there an epidemic?


The DEA might be touting a heroin epidemic, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — the agency that makes that kind of determination — disagrees.


“We do not consider heroin usage as an epidemic,” said spokesperson Courtney Lenard. “Deaths rates from heroin overdose in the US were relatively stable from 1999 through 2010. We did not see the sharp increase that we would characterize as an epidemic.”

The agency cautions that some local jurisdictions have reported an increase in heroin overdoses since 2010, but says the national data isn’t available yet.

2. Has heroin use grown in the past decade?


The number of people who say they’ve used heroin recently has doubled from 2002 to 2012, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

(Credit: SAMHSA)

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

3. Is heroin now one of the most popular drugs?


Even with the rise in heroin use, relatively few people actually use the drug. Here’s a 2012 SAMHSA survey that asked people what drugs they had used in the past month. Heroin usage is tiny in comparison to other drugs.

(Credit: SAMHSA)

True, heroin use has doubled in recent years, but the overall number of users are a relatively small group.

4. Is prescription pill abuse linked to the rise in heroin?


Prescription drugs like Oxycodone have become popular for recreational use in the past decade. There’s a reason pills like Oxycontin are nicknamed “hillbilly heroin” — they’re opioids, just like smack.


Deaths from prescription painkillers (called “opioids” in the chart below) far outnumber those from heroin in recent years. The CDC does consider opioid abuse an epidemic.

(Credit: Centers for Disease Control)

Here’s how the painkillers connect to heroin:

Authorities noticed the trend and started clamping down on unscrupulous doctor-dealers. At the same time, drug companies have made it harder to get high off the pills by altering the way the drug is released into the body.

That’s sent some pill users to a cheaper but less regulated alternative: heroin.

“Once you get stuck to it, it’s hard to get released,” says Warren Bickel, the director of the Addiction Recovery Research Center at Virginia Tech.

5. Are significant numbers of young people turning to heroin?


Even with the high percentage increase in heroin consumption, few young people use the drug.


SAMHSA surveyed drug use for people ages 18 to 25 over the past decade, but the heroin usage was numerically small. Only 0.1 percent to 0.4 percent of young people over that period said that had recently used heroin.

Compare that to other drugs (heroin usage was so relatively small they left it off the chart):

(Credit: SAMHSA)

M. Dolores Cimini, an assistant director at SUNY Albany’s University Counseling Center, said that abuse of prescription pills are a much bigger concern for young people.


“While heroin use in the U.S. has received a great deal of attention in the past few days due to the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, recent studies suggest that non-medical use of prescription drugs and marijuana are alarmingly more popular in the college student population, with hallucinogens, inhalants, methamphetamine, and heroin far behind,” she wrote in an email. “Non-medical use of prescription stimulants by college students is particularly on the rise, in large part resulting from the pressure to perform well in school while meeting multiple life demands.”

The takeaway

The percentage of people using and overdosing from heroin in the past decade has increased dramatically, but the overall number of people consuming the drug is still relatively small. While there are obvious reasons to look for solutions, this isn’t an epidemic.


Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.