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Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Half of heroin addicts 'die early'
Addict
Heroin addiction can lead to an early death
One of the first long-term studies of heroin addicts has found that nearly half die prematurely.

Researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles tracked 581 male heroin addicts over a 33-year period.


Many people believe that millions of heroin addicts have just quit. It's not true. They've died

Dr Alan Leshner, US National Institute on Drug Abuse
All the addicts were committed by the courts to the California Civil Addict Program in the early 1960s.

In three decades, nearly half of the original group died from drug overdoses or other causes, including murder, suicide, accidents, chronic liver disease and cancer.

On average they died nine years earlier than the general population.

Many of the survivors, whose average age was 57, were still using heroin and other drugs.

Disability

There were high rates of disability, hepatitis, mental health problems and criminal activity.

The researchers found that many of the addicts endured a cycle of treatment followed relapse - failing to beat their addiction despite repeated attempts.

They believe that any treatment that involves people suddenly giving up their habit is almost certain to fail.

Dr Alan Leshner, director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, said: "This answers the question of where have all the heroin addicts gone?

"Many people believe that millions of heroin addicts have just quit. It's not true. They've died."

The researchers conducted interviews with those who took part in the study in 1974-1975, 1985-1986 and 1996-1997.

At the final interview, 284 of the original group (49%) had died.

Of the 242 who were interviewed, 21% tested positive for heroin, 67% smoked tobacco and 22% drank alcohol every day.

Last year

Many also reported illegal drug use in the past year: 40.5% reported using heroin, 35.5% marijuana, 19% cocaine, 10% crack cocaine and 12% amphetamines.

Another 9% refused to be tested.

Lead researcher Professor Yih-Ing Hser said the findings of the study were not surprising.

Professor Hser said it was possible that the addicts indulged in other types of risky behaviour.

She said addiction could be cured like an acute disease.

"Maybe treatment should be based on a philosophy of harm reduction as opposed to total abstinence, which we think is quite a high expectation and will only lead to frustration and to failure."

Rosie Brocklehurst, of the UK treatment agency Addaction, said long-term research into the problem of heroin addiction was rare.

She said such studies were vital to help inform policy on the best way to tackle the problem of drugs.

She told BBC News Online: "We have long suspected that heroin use has a dramatic effect, not only on the physical body but also on the mind.

"Studies like this serve to underline the importance of treatment, and treatment at an early stage, particularly for young people."

The research is published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

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See also:

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The nature of addiction
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