The rate of fatal overdoses increased from 6.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 16.3 deaths per 100,000 in 2015, ABC said. As a result, heroin surpassed gun homicides to become the most lethal killer in 2015.
Drug overdose death rates increased for all age groups, with the greatest percentage increase among adults aged 55-64 (from 4.2 per 100,000 in 1999 to 21.8 in 2015).
Heroin and opioid painkillers - including prescription ones - have a problematic relationship: Research suggests that since they act similarly in the brain (opioid painkillers are often referred to by some doctors as "heroin lite"), taking one (even "as directed") can increase one's susceptibility to becoming hooked on the other.
"You are 40 times more likely to use heroin if you started with opioid painkillers", Rich Hamburg, the executive vice president for the non-profit Trust for America's Health, told the Reuters news agency. "The increased availability of heroin, its relatively low price (compared to prescription opioids), and high purity appear to be major drivers of the upward trend in heroin use, overdoses, and deaths".
Drug overdoses in the USA are on the rise, and now one in four of them come from heroin.
The NCHS report relied on mortality data from the National Vital Statistics System and did not examine underlying cause of deaths.
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Although the percentage of overdose deaths from heroin is rising, the percentage of deaths from some types of prescription opioids, including oxycodone and hydrocodone, has declined slightly, dropping from 29 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2010 to 24 percent in 2015, the report said.
In contrast, fatal overdoses involving heroin skyrocketed from 8% in 2010 to 25% in 2015 - essentially tripling. Similarly, the percentage of deaths caused by fentanyl and other synthetic opioids (with the exception of methadone) climbed from 8 percent to 18 percent from 2010 to 2015.
An alarming number of deaths due to drug overdoses is being highlighted by a recent federal study.
In 2015, the age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths among non-Hispanic white persons (21.1 per 100,000) was almost 3.5 times the rate in 1999 (6.2).
The overall death rate, however, was highest among people 45-54, with 30 deaths per 100,000.
Slovis said some illicit synthetic opioids can be 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin. "There's a really good chance the increase involving heroin has to be involved with fentanyl".