Alarm About a ‘Heroin Epidemic’ Skyrockets As Heroin Use Falls

By: Jacob Sullum|Sep. 17, 2014 1:16 pm

“Yesterday the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released the results of the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). As I noted a couple of weeks ago, when SAMHSA gave us a preview of those data, the number of respondents who reported using heroin in the previous month fell by 14 percent last year, despite ever-rising concern about a new “heroin epidemic.” While NSDUH probably misses a substantial number of heavy users (exactly how many is unclear), the trends identified by the survey still should indicate whether heroin consumption is on the rise or on the wane (as both government officials and journalists tend to assume). Hence it is instructive to compare past-month heroin use measured by NSDUH (in thousands of users) with mentions of a “heroin epidemic” in the newspaper and wire service articles collected by Nexis:”

Heroin Use and Heroin Epidemic Mentions Table

On the face of it, there is no obvious relationship between the level of heroin use and the level of press attention to it. Notice that the spike in 2006, when the number of past-month users was higher than it has been in any year since then, seems to have prompted no journalistic response whatsoever. The more gradual increase seen after 2009, by comparison, coincided with an initial drop in “heroin epidemic” mentions, followed by a slight increase. Then the number of mentions skyrocketed, rising from 82 in 2011 to 273 in 2012 and 633 in 2013. So far this year there have been nearly2,300 references to a “heroin epidemic” in these news sources, reflecting the tremendous attention attracted by the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death on February 2 (which was caused by “mixed drug intoxication” but generally attributed to heroin alone). That single incident seems to have generated more talk of a “heroin epidemic” than everything else that happened in the previous 12 years. In any case, coverage of the putative epidemic really took off around the time when heroin use started to fall.” READ MORE >>>>>>>

Alarm About a ‘Heroin Epidemic’ Skyrockets As Heroin Use Falls

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