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U.S. Officials Target Escalating Drug Overdoses

Deadly epidemic is driven by abuse of narcotic painkillers and heroin

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Feb. 11 (HealthDay News) -- As deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers mount across the United States, government officials are searching for ways to stem the toll of addiction.

The death last week of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46, in New York City from an apparent heroin overdose highlighted this escalating problem.

"The use of opioids -- a group of drugs that includes heroin and prescription painkillers -- is having a devastating impact on public health and safety in communities across the nation," Gil Kerlikowske, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, said during a Tuesday morning news conference in Washington, D.C.

"In 2010, approximately 100 Americans died from overdoses every day," Kerlikowske said. Prescription painkillers were involved in more than 16,600 deaths that year, and heroin was involved in about 3,000 deaths, he added.

Overdose deaths now surpass deaths from murder and car crashes in America, he said.

Heroin's popularity has soared in recent years -- jumping to 669,000 users in 2012 from 373,000 in 2007, according to government figures provided at the news conference. However, heroin is still much less common than other drugs, Kerlikowske added.

Heroin's resurgence is partly the result of increased availability and lower cost relative to other drugs, he said.

Speaking at the news conference, Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, explained that heroin is an opioid, as is morphine and commonly prescribed painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone.

"These are all classified as opioids because they exert their effect by attaching to the opioid receptor found in our brain and spinal cord," Compton said.

Besides blocking the transmission of pain, "opioids also cause pleasurable sensations," Compton said. "It's through that mechanism that abuse can result in physical dependency and addiction."

These drugs also slow breathing and heart activity, Compton said. "These functions can be slowed to such an extent that they often result in a coma or death," he said.

The heroin epidemic is linked to prescription drug abuse, Kerlikowske said. "Many individuals who develop a substance abuse disorder or who overdose begin by misusing prescription drugs," he said.

To break this link, the federal government has begun to crack down on "pill mills" and doctors who over-prescribe narcotic painkillers. It has also developed education programs for doctors and patients on prescribing painkillers and disposing of unused prescriptions.

Nearly 80 percent of people who recently started using heroin had previously used prescription pain relievers illegally, according to a U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report issued last April.

Hoffman's death, despite his efforts to stay clean, reminds experts that any fight against heroin must be broad and multi-pronged.

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