In the 1960s, heroin users were mostly young men from minority groups in urban areas. Today, they are mostly white men and women in their mid-twenties, a study showed.
The study, published recently in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, revealed that the demographics of heroin users had shifted dramatically, with many patients now coming from suburban and rural areas.
"We used to think that heroin use was confined to a small area in the inner cities among minority populations," study author Theodore J. Cicero was quoted saying by LiveScience.com.
"But it's moved beyond that, to the suburbs and rural areas," the professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis said.
After surveying 2,800 patients from drug treatment centers, the researchers found out that the typical heroin user was no longer a 17-year old male. He is now 23 years old and either male or female.
While in the 1960s, 45 percent were non-whites, today only 10 percent are from minority groups.
Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer at rehabilitation organization Phoenix House, told Journal Sentinel that this may be because of certain attitudes by the doctors.
"I think the best explanation for this is that doctors are prescribing narcotics more cautiously to their black patients - they worry more about the possibility of addiction or diversion when the patient is black," he said.
What is mostly alarming is that while 80 percent of users in the past used heroin as their first narcotic, nowadays the share has shifted with 60 percent of users first becoming addicted to prescription opioid or painkillers before using heroin.
Cicero told the Journal Sentinel that this is because heroin used to be the only narcotic readily available to the public.
"Then prescription opioids came along. People who had the money could buy these drugs legally," he said.
Kolodny said more white patients are being exposed to opioids.
"If doctors and dentists were practicing appropriately, they would also prescribe cautiously to their white patients," he said.
Cicero said the government must now focus on learning why people are turning to opioiddrugs and how to stop them from being dependent and later shifting to heroin.
Over the decades, prescription drug addiction has become a major problem for the United States.
The National institute on Drug Abuse said over-the-counter drugs are now among the third most commonly abused substances, next to marijuana and alcohol.
At least 2.5 million Americans are believed to be addicted to opioids or prescription drugs and more than 50 percent of them haven't received any medication for it.
Treatments for drug abuse have also changed in the last decade or so. Rehabilitation centers now use a dual approach of counseling and medication.
BioCorRx's Start Fresh Program uses a unique naltrexone implant that is inserted underneath the patient's skin in an outpatient procedure that lasts less than one hour. As early as two to three hours later, the patient is said to have reduced cravings for prescription drugs oropioids.
This is because naltrexone acts like a blocking mechanism in the part of the brain that feels pleasure from the intake of opioids. Naltrexone is extra effective in implant form since the extended release lasts for at least six months in most people compared to pills that have to be taken daily or injectables taken monthly.