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The rate of heroin use doubled among women over a decade, according to the study released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which compared data from the three-year period between 2002 to 2004 with data from 2011 to 2014.
Heroin use also grew by 60% among those with annual household incomes of at least $50,000 — close to the median household income in the United States. Heroin use grew by 62.5% among those with private insurance, an indication that the users are employed and more financially secure.
"If we don't act now, we could lose an entire generation of people – to addiction, to the streets, to jail or to death," said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., in a statement. "We need to devote the attention and the resources at all levels of government to combat this crisis that is now leading to as many deaths as from gun violence and motor vehicles accidents."
An estimated 517,000 people used heroin or were dependent on it in 2013, a nearly 150% increase since 2007, the CDC study found. Drug dealers import far more heroin into the United States now than in past years, according to the Drug Enforcement Administraton. Federal agents seized about 4,840 pounds at the southwest border in 2013, four times the amount seized annually from 2000 to 2008
About 75% of new heroin users first became hooked on prescription opiates, a class of morphine-like drugs that includes OxyContin and Vicodin, before turning to heroin, the CDC found.
"Prescription opiates have become a gateway drug," Frieden said.
There's no evidence that painkiller addicts switch to heroin because doctors are prescribing fewer opiates or because painkillers are harder to get, Frieden said. The biggest increases in heroin use are in communities where opiate use remains high. Many people switch to heroin because it's cheaper, Frieden said.
For a heavy user, a day's supply of OxyContin — two 80 milligram pills — can cost up to $160. A day's worth of heroin costs just $40, the DEA said.