Is Heroin Use 'Soaring'?



Following yesterday's death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose, MSNBC perceives a "rapidly growing crisis of heroin and other opiate abuse" in the United States. Under the headline "Philip Seymour Hoffman and America's Heroin Problem," Max Lockie reports that "first-time heroin use has increased in the U.S. by nearly 60% over the past decade."

That sounds like a big increase, but overall heroin use rates remain very low. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 0.3 percent of Americans 12 and older used heroin in 2012, compared to 0.2 percent in 2002. During the same period past-month use remained steady at 0.1 percent. According to the Monitoring the Future Study, past-year heroin use among high school seniors actually fell from 1 percent in 2002 to 0.6 percent in 2012.

MSNBC exaggerates the increase in heroin use by focusing on raw numbers instead of rates. A chart accompanying the article shows the number of past-month users rising from 166,000 in 2002 to 335,000 in 2012, which creates an alarming upward curve instead of the flat line you'd get by comparing rates. The effect is less dramatic for past-year use, but it still makes the curve steeper.

A CNN story also cites raw numbers instead of rates and claims, in the label on a video, that "heroin use [is] soaring in [the] U.S." By contrast, the accompanying article refers to "an uptick" and concedes that "heroin remains comparatively rare." Measured by past-year use, marijuana is 40 times as popular.

[Thanks to Stanton Peele for the MSNBC link.]