The Changing Face of an Opiate Addict

October 22, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Prescription painkillers. Opiates
Photo credit: Eric Norris/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Sociologists have constructed profiles of heroin and prescription painkiller users, finding that a new demographic is falling victim to abuse.

According to a new study at Penn State University, the growing availability of heroin and prescription painkillers is on the rise — changing the face of addiction. Groups who were previously unaffected by opiate abuse are falling victim to its deadly allure, particularly young white men.

Dr. Shannon Monnat, assistant professor of rural sociology, demography, and sociology, collaborated with Dr. Khary K. Rigg, assistant professor of mental health law and policy at the University of Southern Florida, to co-write the study on the new profile of opiate users.

SEE ALSO: Heroin Users Can Now Buy Controversial Drug at CVS

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, popping prescription meds is an epidemic in the US, but many are unaware of just how severe the problem is. Shockingly, 52 million Americans over the age of 12 have used prescription drugs non-medically in their lifetime. And while the US only has 5 percent of the world’s population, it consumes a whopping 75 percent of the world’s prescription drugs.

The researchers used data from the 2010-2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health to unearth which characteristics make up the majority of opiate addicts today. The study authors grouped 10,201 respondents into three categories— heroin users, prescription painkiller users, and both. Then, they analyzed differences in socioeconomic, criminal justice, medical, and other demographic factors.

The groups were distinct in a laundry list of ways.

The people who only used heroin were the most socioeconomically disadvantaged, least connected to religious services, least physically healthy, least likely to have children living with them, and least likely to be white. Heroin users also had more involvement with the criminal justice system than prescription drug abusers.

The group that included those who used both heroin and prescription painkillers reported a higher rate of mental health problems, as well as more visits to the emergency room than those choosing just one drug. Those who used both drugs were more likely to start using in their teens, and typically chose to shoot the drugs intravenously rather than snort them.

Lastly, the group who used only prescription painkillers had the most ties to social constructs like marriage, religion, and employment. They were the least socioeconomically disadvantaged, had the least criminal justice involvement, and the best physical and mental health.

Interestingly, the study shows a hierarchy of opiate drug use based on socioeconomic factors. Those who would typically be seen as stable individuals with jobs, families, and religious ties are, in fact, most likely to abuse prescription pills, while heroin users are comprised of more disadvantaged people.

Nonetheless, the problem is skyrocketing due to the increasing availability of opiates. Instead of creating cures for pain and mental disorders, the pharmaceutical industry is ironically perpetuating the cycle. As suggested by the researchers, there should be three distinct drug intervention programs created to address each group. As the profile of opiate addicts continues to expand, the prevention and solution methods must keep up with the epidemic.

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