The spike in heroin overdoses in our region between 2012 and 2014 was accompanied by a marked decline in overdoses from prescription pain medications, according to a study of hospital admissions and emergency department visits by Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency.

“Our region is following trends found in other communities,” said Dr. Thomas Mahoney, chief medical officer for FLHSA. “As access to prescription pain medication has decreased, the Finger Lakes region has witnessed a sharp increase in the use of heroin, which is less expensive and easier to obtain.” 

Earlier research has shown a strong link between the two types of drug abuse, the FLHSA study noted, citing a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that 86 percent of study participants first abused prescription pain relievers before moving on to heroin.

One contributor to falling overdoses from prescription narcotics in our region is the August 2013 launch of New York State’s I-STOP program, which requires providers to check prescription histories of their patients prior to writing scripts to prevent overuse of prescription drugs.

The spike in heroin overdoses can also be linked to the dangerous variation in potency that occurs with unregulated drugs, said Dr. Mahoney. “Illegally obtained heroin varies in strength and is frequently adulterated with other narcotics, which contributes to unintentional overdoses and death,” he said.

Since 2000, hospitalizations for heroin overdoses have risen 671 percent in the nine county Finger Lakes region, with most of the increase occurring since 2010, the data showed.

The study also found that the growing drug abuse problem spans both urban and rural counties, with the admission rate for heroin overdose increasing 186 percent for the eight rural Finger Lakes counties and an alarming 1,157 percent for Monroe County since 2000.

The findings are based on an analysis of hospitalizations and emergency department visits for Finger Lakes residents aged 15 and older from the Statewide Planning and Research Cooperative System (SPARCS).

The data analysis also showed that:

  • Deaths from overdose declined 21 percent in 2014, falling from 78 fatal narcotic poisonings in 2013 to 62 in 2014. The drop in mortality may be linked to a new law expanding access to the opiate antidote Narcan.
  • Drug addiction crosses all ages. Pain medication overdose in 2014 was highest among those 50 and older, with 51 percent of hospitalizations coming from this age group. Heroin overdose was most prevalent among 15- to 29-year olds.
  • African Americans have lower rates of emergency room visits for drug overdose than whites and Hispanics. The rate for African Americans was 32.8 per 100,000 people, compared to 45.1 for whites and 57.9 for Hispanics.

A full text of the issue brief is available here.