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One in five U.S. heroin users is Black, study finds

While most heroin users seeking treatment in the United States are White people, researchers report a growing number of middle-aged Black people has sought treatment in the last few years, a new study shows. Photo by rebcenter-moscow/Pixabay
While most heroin users seeking treatment in the United States are White people, researchers report a growing number of middle-aged Black people has sought treatment in the last few years, a new study shows. Photo by rebcenter-moscow/Pixabay

Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Nearly one in five people in the United States who sought treatment for heroin addiction during the first two decades of the 21st century was Black, a study published Friday by JAMA Network Open found.

Researchers found more that most heroin users were White, and the vast majority treated for addiction between 2000 and 2017 were under age 49.

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But they also highlight a growing group of Black heroin users between age 45 and 54, which suggests the opioid and heroin epidemics cut across generations and demographic groups more than previously thought.

"Despite the popular narrative, which often implies that the opioid crisis is primarily affecting young, White populations in suburban and rural areas, the truth is that opioid use disorder affects diverse racial and age groups with different needs," study co-author Elodie Warren told UPI.

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"To more effectively tackle the crisis and allocate scarce resources appropriately and equitably, we need a better understanding of which communities are most affected, with an eye toward some of the most under-served and marginalized populations in this country," said Warren, who conducted the research for her master's thesis at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

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Use of heroin in the United States has more than doubled since the early 2000s, according to research published last year.

That increase coincides with what many have dubbed the "opioid epidemic," or the dramatic rise in abuse of drugs such as heroin as well as prescription painkillers across the country.

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For this study, the Columbia University researchers analyzed data on nearly 6.1 million patients admitted to state-regulated heroin-addiction treatment programs between 2000 and 2017.

More than 80% of these patients were adults age 21 to 49, just over 4 million, or 66%, were male and nearly 3.5 million, or 57%, were White. About 1.1 million, or 17%, were Black.

Among White patients, the age distribution remained fairly constant across the study period -- at ages 21 to 34 -- but between 2015 and 2017, among Black patients, it shifted toward older adults -- age 45 to 54.

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"Our study suggests the existence of an aging cohort of Black men and women, likely survivors of a heroin epidemic that hit urban areas more than 40 years ago, that continues to struggle with heroin addiction," Warren said.

"This points to the need for targeted interventions in chronically under-served communities," she said.

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