As the new heroin epidemic grips the nation, use of the drug is rising faster among whites than nonwhites. Additionally, the phenomenon of starting with addiction to prescription opiates and transitioning to heroin use seems to be increasing solely among whites.

Publishing their findings in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers analyzed data from 43,093 respondents to the nationally representative 2001 to 2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) and 36,309 respondents to the 2012 to 2013 NESARC-III. They looked at lifetime heroin use and the prevalence of heroin use disorder according to DSM-IV definitions.

Among the 79,402 respondents, 43.3 percent were men and the mean age was 46.1 years old.

Between 2001 to 2002 and 2012 to 2013, the proportion of the U.S. population estimated to report heroin use increased from 0.34 percent to 1.9 percent among whites, compared with an increase in heroin use prevalence of 0.32 percent to 1.05 percent among nonwhites.

The prevalence of heroin use disorder rose between the two time periods from 0.19 percent to 0.82 percent among whites compared with 0.25 percent to 0.43 percent among nonwhites. Broken down by age group, the prevalence of heroin use disorder increased from 0.21 percent to 1 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds, from 0.2 percent to 0.77 percent among 30- to 44-year-olds and from 0.22 percent to 0.51 percent among older adults.

The proportion of those who reported first engaging in nonmedical use of prescription opioids before starting to use heroin increased among white heroin users, from 35.8 percent to 52.8 percent but not among nonwhite users.

The study was limited by the fact that the survey findings were not backed up by drug testing and that the surveys excluded homeless and incarcerated individuals.

The authors of the study concluded that their findings “highlight the need for educational campaigns regarding harms related to heroin use and the need to expand access to treatment in populations at increased risk for heroin use and heroin use disorder.”

To read a press release about the study, click here.

To read the study abstract, click here.