The death rate from heroin overdoses doubled from 2010 to 2012, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Years of over-prescribing of painkillers led to the increase in heroin deaths, the CDC said.
Deaths from heroin rose from 1 to 2.1 deaths per 100,000 people during that period. Deaths from prescription opioid painkillers declined, from 6 to 5.6 deaths per 100,000, Reuters reports. "The rapid rise in heroin overdose deaths follows nearly two decades of increasing drug overdose deaths in the United States, primarily driven by (prescription painkiller) drug overdoses," the CDC researchers wrote.
They found 75 percent of heroin users in treatment programs who started using heroin after 2000 said they first abused prescription opioids. They switched to heroin because it was easier to get, less expensive and more potent than painkillers. In contrast, more than 80 percent of people who began using heroin in the 1960s said they didn't start abusing another drug first.
The largest increase in heroin overdose deaths occurred in the Northeast, followed by the South.
"Reducing inappropriate opioid prescribing remains a crucial public health strategy to address both prescription opioid and heroin overdoses," CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, said in a news release. "Addressing prescription opioid abuse by changing prescribing is likely to prevent heroin use in the long term."
The CDC is calling for improving access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction and increased use of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone.