Heroin use in the US has reached its highest levels in more than two decades, and the annual cost of treating the drug epidemic have risen accordingly, soaring well past the $50 billion mark as of 2015, according to new research published in a recent edition of the journal PLOS One.
As part of the new study, University of Illinois at Chicago pharmacoeconomists Simon Pickard and Ruixuan Jiang developed a cost-analytic model to determine how use of the morphine-based opioid drug impacts society in various different ways, including the number of imprisoned users, and the cost of treating both overdose victims and infants who are born addicted to the drug.
In addition, they looked at lost workplace productivity and the cost of treating chronic infectious diseases (HIV, Hepatitis C, and tuberculosis) contracted through the use of heroin, which has not only reached a 20 year high in the US, but is also the deadliest drug worldwide, according a 2016 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report cited by the university in a press release.
As Pickard and Jiang explained in their PLOS One study, they used literature-based estimates to calculate roughly how much the heroin epidemic was costing society as a whole. They found that the average cost was $50,799 per heroin user, or an estimated total of $51.2 billion nationwide in 2015 dollars, given that an estimated one million Americans currently abuse the substance.
Prescription painkiller use can often turn into heroin abuse
To put those figures into context, the researchers also looked at the estimated cost of treatment for other common diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease treatment (COPD) and diabetes. COPD, they found, cost an average of $2,567 per patient per year to treat, while it cost approximately $11,148 per patient (in 2015 dollars) to treat diabetes for 12 months.
While Pickard and Jiang admit that there are some limitations to their study, they believe that it “provides important evidence to inform policy on combating the heroin epidemic. The societal cost of heroin use disorder has not been characterized since 1996, and the results of this study use the most recently available data and trends to provide a cost estimate of the burden of heroin use disorder to society in the United States.”
“Even with a comparatively narrow perspective, heroin use disorder exacts a tremendous cost to society at $50,799 per user,” the UIC researchers explained. “Possible targets for reduction of the societal cost of heroin use disorder such as reducing the overall number of heroin users, reducing the proportion of users who are incarcerated, and others were also identified.”
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics cited by the authors, heroin-related overdose deaths have more than quadrupled since 2010, with nearly 13,000 people dying as a result of heroin overdoses in 2015. As abuse of the drug increases, many communities are turning to Narcan (naloxone), a type of medication known as an opioid antagonist which can reverse and block the affects of said substances, to revive heroin overdose victims.
“The opioid crisis didn’t happen overnight,” Jiang said. His colleague Pickard, who has tracked heroin use for several years, said that many addicts become addicted to opioids through the use of prescription painkillers, then ultimately turn to heroin because it is costs less and is easier to obtain. Without some kind of concentrated effort to address the crisis, he added, the number of heroin users is likely to increase, which “would continue to increase the societal burden of heroin use disorder.”
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