Heroin Addiction Costs US More Than $50 Billion Per Year

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The heroin epidemic and heroin addiction creates a heavy cost for society. Brian Snyder / REUTERS

The heroin problem in the United States continues to worsen, with the number of reported users doubling from 2000 to 2013, and climbing since. Heroin overdose deaths have more than tripled in the last 15 years.

But how much does the heroin epidemic cost the United States? A lot. Researchers seeking to put a number on it have come up with a new figure: more than $51 billion. That’s a vast sum, equivalent to the gross domestic product of countries like Lebanon and Croatia.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago calculated the cost of heroin use to society in a study published in the journal PLOS ONE . To come up with a figure, they looked at all the ways that the drug impacts the estimated 1 million active users nationwide and those with whom they interact and effect.

These include costs to treat diseases that are made more likely and spread through the use of needles, such as hepatitis C, hepatitis B, HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis. Treatments for neonatal abstinence syndrome, a group of problems that occurs in infants exposed to heroin in the womb, are also included. Heroin users are also more likely to be incarcerated and to commit crimes, which have heavy costs, and they are significantly less productive than other members of society (resulting in lost potential income and services). The researchers also accounted for treatments for addiction and overdose.

Heroin users who are locked up are particularly expensive to society. The scientists estimate each bears a cost of to the United States of nearly $75,000 per year. This figure is mostly driven by productivity loss ($29,000), incarceration costs ($31,000) and, perhaps surprisingly, treatment for hepatitis C (a chronic condition with a treatment tab of $9,000). HIV, spread via heroin use, also takes a large toll; the condition is estimated to cost $300,000 to treat over a lifetime.

Overall, the average heroin user bears a $50,800 cost to U.S. society annually. That’s just a hair below the latest U.S. median annual salary of $51,272.

The authors note that addressing heroin use disorder as a medical rather than a legal problem, one which can be treated, and reducing the number of incarcerated heroin users would save society a lot of money.  

If more is not done, the problem is likely to get worse, the costs will grow. “Without meaningful public health efforts, the number of heroin users is likely to continue to grow; the downstream effects of heroin use, such as the spread of infectious diseases and increased incarceration due to actions associated with heroin use, compounded by their associated costs, would continue to increase the societal burden of heroin,” the authors write in the study.