Celebrity Deaths Highlight Stark Reality: Heroin Use Is Surging

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The cause of Hollywood actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death has not yet been confirmed, but police believe that heroin played a role in it. Hoffman was found on his bathroom floor Sunday with a needle sticking out of his left arm. Following the Academy Award winning actor’s shocking fatality, more and more reports have come out regarding the prevalence of heroin as a white-collar drug, and it is clear that the usage of the narcotic is on the rise, especially in affluent suburban areas.

The LA Times reported Monday that health officials believe that more than 660,000 American used heroin in 2012, nearly double the figure from five years earlier, reflecting a surge in the drug’s use that mirrors its popularity of the 1970s and ’80s. Although Los Angeles has long harbored a large market for heroin on account of Mexican cartels pushing the drug across the Southwestern border, that distribution has spread across the country in recent years, and now more and more pain-pill addicts in the Northeast are getting a less-expensive high from the narcotics. The Times reports that overdoses and emergency room visits have surged across the country, while cases used to be largely reserved for the West Coast.

The interesting thing about the recent uptick in heroin use is that it is becoming an especially popular drug among the affluent suburbanites rather than the inner-city dwellers, reflecting a change in its primary users from before. Back in the 1970s, heroin was the drug of choice for celebrities and inner-city addicts, but experts say now that its popularity has spread out to the suburbs — and stayed there. Theodore J. Cicero, a professor of neuopharmacology at Washington University explained via the Times that, “This last year, we’ve seen a big uptick in heroin use. It’s becoming rapidly very popular. But now it’s becoming a rural and suburban issue rather than an urban issue.”

According to the Times, many addicts turn to heroin because it is less expensive than painkillers; thus, they can get their high several times for what they would pay for a single pain pill. In 2010, heroin overdoses killed more than 3,000 people across the U.S., illustrating a 45-percent increase from 2006. The popularity of heroin showed a decline in the 1980s on account of the HIV/AIDs crisis bringing concern of infection-carrying needles, but it is clear that that anxiety has since mitigated, and heroin is quickly becoming the drug of choice once again.

As highlighted by the Times, Hoffman’s death came just one week after Pennsylvania officials said that a batch of heroin spiked with fentanyl killed at least 22 people in January, and his death also came 6 months after “Glee” star Cory Monteith died in a British Columbia hotel room after taking a combination of heroin, alcohol, morphine, and codeine.

It is still unclear how Hoffman died, as the way he was found on his bathroom floor would indicate that he died instantly and studies suggest that instantaneous death is highly unusual. However, there are many ways that heroin usage can kill you, and CNN outlined those ways Tuesday.

CNN reports that in 2011, 4.2 million Americans over the age of 11 had tried heroin at least once, and that’s especially problematic, considering an estimated 23 percent of them will become addicts, and addicts are found to die more frequently than new users, according to studies. Heroin is most often mixed with water and injected because injecting the drug minimizes the lag time between when the drug is taken and how fast the effects are felt. It can also be smoked, snorted, or eaten.

According to CNN, when people die from heroin overdoses it’s usually because their bodies forgot to breathe. If users take too much heroin and then fall asleep, they’re at risk for their respiratory drive shutting down, because usually when we sleep, our body naturally remembers to breathe, but in the case of a heroin overdose, you fall asleep and your body forgets.

A heroin overdose can also cause your blood pressure to plunge and your heart to fail, CNN reports. An infection on the surface of the heart — infectious endocarditis — is 300 times more likely to affect intravenous heroin users, studies report. The rate or rhythm of the heartbeat can also be thrown off by heroin, because during an arrhythmia, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body, causing a lack of blow flood to the brain, heart, and other organs. Case of arrhythmia have been linked to heroin use.

Heroin use can also cause pulmonary edema — when the heart can’t pump blood to the body sufficiently — and can give users a heart attack or lead to kidney failure. What’s more, CNN reports that heroin laced with other toxic contaminants can harm a user and even cause death, although such instances are thought to be rare. Instantaneous death, like what likely occurred in Hoffman’s case, is considered extremely unusual, and one study highlighted by CNN shows that they only account for 14 percent of heroin-related deaths.

Still, most heroin-related fatalities involve men, especially those who have struggled with other drugs or alcohol, and many are single. Hoffman was not. An addict has a higher chance of dying if he leaves treatment because those who are newly clean don’t know how much of the drug to give themselves any more, putting their bodies at risk of an overdose. Long-term users are also at greater risk of overdose because as users’ tolerance develops, they typically need more of it to produce the high they are used to getting. That increased dose can trigger the aforementioned complications. 

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