As women have been closing the gender gap in college graduation and employment rates, we’ve also been catching up to men in drinking, drug use and, a new report shows, heroin consumption: Over the past decade, the rate of women abusing the drug has doubled. A new study published on Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compares data gathered between 2002 and 2004 with data from 2011 to 2014, and reveals new trends in use of the drug typically associated with junkies and working-class men. It’s becoming more popular with suburban and middle-class Americans: over the period of study, rates of heroin use increased by 60 percent among people at or above the median household income and by 62.5 percent among people with private insurance.
Though heroin rates have risen particularly sharply among women and the middle-class, they’re rising across the board. The CDC estimates that more than half a million people were regularly consuming heroin in 2013, the most recent year in the study, and the number of fatal overdoses quadrupled between 2000 and 2013. And certain patterns persist: Rates of opioid prescription and heroin abuse remain higher in poorer populations and in the South, and lowest in the Northeast.
Experts pin the blame for this epidemic on the increasing availability and popularity of prescription opiate painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin; about three-quarters of new heroin users start with one of these drugs. For users who’ve grown accustomed to opiates, heroin can provide a high that’s not just more intense but also more cost-effective. Though the latest generation of heroin users may have more resources than in the past, a serious OxyContin or Vicodin habit can still be prohibitively expensive: according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the cost of a day’s worth of OxyContin can run as high as $160, compared to $40 for a similar dose of heroin. The health risks of needle injections can affect entire communities; USA Today reports a link between the increase in heroin and an HIV outbreak in rural Indiana and a nationwide resurgence of hepatitis C.
Women may be more inclined to pick up prescriptions for painkillers, and more susceptible to their effects. Between 1999 and 2010, the rate of fatal overdoses from prescription painkillers increased by five times among middle-aged women, compared to 3.5 times among men. Part of the problem may lie with a bias in the medical profession: doctors may be more likely to prescribe these drugs to women. One Spanish study found a 29 percent gender gap in prescriptions of painkillers. Recent studies have found that women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain and more sensitive to pain in general.