Vital Signs: Demographic and Substance Use Trends Among Heroin Users — United States, 2002–2013

Christopher M. Jones, PharmD; Joseph Logan, PhD; R. Matthew Gladden, PhD; Michele K. Bohm, MPH


Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2015;64(26):719-725. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Background: Heroin use and overdose deaths have increased significantly in the United States. Assessing trends in heroin use among demographic and particular substance-using groups can inform prevention efforts.

Methods: FDA and CDC analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and National Vital Statistics System reported during 2002–2013. Trends in heroin use among demographic and substance using groups were compared for 2002–2004, 2005–2007, 2008–2010, and 2011–2013. A multivariable logistic regression model was used to identify characteristics associated with heroin abuse or dependence.

Results: Annual average rates of past-year heroin use increased from 1.6 per 1,000 persons aged ≥12 years in 2002–2004 to 2.6 per 1,000 in 2011–2013. Rates of heroin abuse or dependence were strongly positively correlated with rates of heroin-related overdose deaths over time. For the combined data years 2011–2013, the odds of past-year heroin abuse or dependence were highest among those with past-year cocaine or opioid pain reliever abuse or dependence.

Conclusions: Heroin use has increased significantly across most demographic groups. The increase in heroin abuse or dependence parallels the increase in heroin-related overdose deaths. Heroin use is occurring in the context of broader poly-substance use.

Implications for Public Health Practice: Further implementation of a comprehensive response that targets the wider range of demographic groups using heroin and addresses the key risk factors for heroin abuse and dependence is needed. Specific response needs include reducing inappropriate prescribing and use of opioids through early identification of persons demonstrating problematic use, stronger prescription drug monitoring programs, and other clinical measures; improving access to, and insurance coverage for, evidence-based substance abuse treatment, including medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorders; and expanding overdose recognition and response training and access to naloxone to treat opioid pain reliever and heroin overdoses.


During 2002–2013, heroin overdose death rates nearly quadrupled in the United States, from 0.7 deaths to 2.7 deaths per 100,000 population, with a near doubling of the rates from 2011–2013.[1] Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) indicate heroin use, abuse, and dependence have increased in recent years. In 2013, an estimated 517,000 persons reported past-year heroin abuse or dependence, a nearly 150% increase since 2007.[2]

During 2002–2011, rates of heroin initiation were reported to be highest among males, persons aged 18–25 years, non-Hispanic whites, those with an annual household income <$20,000, and those residing in the Northeast.[3] However, during this period heroin initiation rates generally increased across most demographic subgroups.[3] Most heroin users have a history of nonmedical use of prescription opioid pain relievers,[3–5] and an increase in the rate of heroin overdose deaths has occurred concurrently with an epidemic of prescription opioid overdoses.

Although it has been postulated that efforts to curb opioid prescribing, resulting in restricted prescription opioid access, have fueled heroin use and overdose, a recent analysis of 2010–2012 drug overdose deaths in 28 states found that decreases in prescription opioid death rates within a state were not associated with increases in heroin death rates; in fact, increases in heroin overdose death rates were associated with increases in prescription opioid overdose death rates.[6] In addition, a study examining trends in opioid pain reliever overdose hospitalizations and heroin overdose hospitalizations between 1993 and 2009 found that increases in opioid pain reliever hospitalizations predicted an increase in heroin overdose hospitalizations in subsequent years.[7] Thus, the changing patterns of heroin use and overdose deaths are most likely the result of multiple, and possibly interacting, factors. Moreover, there is a lack of research examining recent trends in the prevalence of other substance use among persons using heroin, especially among the high-risk population of heroin users who meet diagnostic criteria for heroin abuse or dependence.

To improve understanding of current heroin use, abuse, and dependence trends and to identify individual-level risk factors that could help tailor prevention efforts, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and CDC examined demographic and substance use, abuse, and dependence trends among heroin users in the United States during 2002–2013.