RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The U.S. is in the midst of a heroin epidemic. The government's latest estimates find that more than half a million Americans abused heroin in 2013. That's a sharp increase from just a few years ago, documented in a new report looking at the changing face of this deadly addiction. NPR's Richard Harris has more.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Set aside your stereotypes of who's shooting up heroin. Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says that picture has changed rapidly since as recently as 2007.
TOM FRIEDEN: The largest increases were among women, non-Hispanic whites and others - groups that have historically had lower rates of heroin use.
HARRIS: Though men are still the heaviest users, the number of women taking this drug has doubled. Most are young with low incomes. A study in the CDC's publication Vital Signs looks at what's driving that change.
FRIEDEN: It's really a one-two punch.
HARRIS: First, it's being driven by people who have gotten hooked on prescription pain pills. These opioids have essentially the same active ingredient as heroin.
FRIEDEN: And second, there's an increase in the supply and accessibility and a decrease in the cost of heroin.
HARRIS: Frieden says the street price for heroin is one-fifth of what it costs to buy pain pills. So what's to be done? For one thing, Frieden says law enforcement should really go after heroin supplies. Limiting supply will raise the price and discourage some people from taking the drug. Doctors also need to think carefully about the severe risks of prescribing painkilling pills in the first place.
FRIEDEN: A few doses and someone can have a life of addiction. A few pills too many and someone can die from overdose.
HARRIS: Frieden is calling for a broad effort involving doctors, law enforcement and health officials to bring what he calls the heroin crisis under control. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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