U.S. acts to head off rise in heroin use by young 'Heroin chic' advertising, misperceptions blamed


WASHINGTON -- Federal officials are scrambling to head off what they fear may become an epidemic of heroin addiction among America's youth.

While overall illicit drug use among younger teen-agers declined recently, the percentage of eighth-graders who said they've tried heroin doubled between 1991 and 1996.

And last year, about a quarter of American teen-agers said heroin is easy to obtain, according to a survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Young people don't understand heroin's lethal effects, experts told health care providers and social workers gathered at a NIDA conference in Washington yesterday.

To limit heroin's impact, experts are spreading information about the drug's uses, effects and symptoms to educators, parents and others likely to encounter young people daily. They're hoping the educational effort will turn young people away from heroin before its use becomes endemic.

"What we are doing here is a pre-emptive strike," said NIDA Director Alan Leshner. "We're not a crisis yet, and we're trying to stay ahead."

Conference speakers attributed the increase in heroin experimentation to several factors.

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala said the glamorization of heroin use in popular culture has contributed to rising use by young women. She said the number of teen-age females admitted to publicly funded centers for heroin treatment increased by 20 percent between 1992 and 1995.

"Too often today, when girls open a fashion magazine, instead of seeing pictures of health, they see pictures of 'heroin chic,' " Shalala said. "Models with drawn faces, eyes rimmed in black smudges, almost death-like."

Conference speakers said teen-agers are also more likely to try heroin because purer forms of the drug can be smoked or snorted rather than injected. Some teens think -- wrongly -- that only injecting heroin is deadly.

Intravenous heroin use has declined nationally. Among heroin users admitted to treatment in New York City in 1996, 41 percent injected the drug, compared with 71 percent in 1995.

"The use of noninjected routes makes it more attractive to youth and more frightening to adults," said Marian Fischman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York.

"The fact that using heroin this way is just as risky is a message we have to get out if we're going to discourage younger users."

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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