Economic Cost of Heroin Epidemic in U.S. Is Staggering


It almost doesn’t seem right to assign a dollar amount to the toll heroin has taken on the United States.

But in a country where money talks, let this sink in: The societal cost of heroin in 2015 was $51.2 billion.

That’s according to a scientific paper published last month in PLOS One.

“The annual cost of heroin use disorder to society in the United States emphasizes the need for sustained investment in healthcare and non-healthcare related strategies that reduce the likelihood of abuse and provide care and support for users to overcome the disorder,” concluded the study authors.

The Other Heroin Tally

Jiang R. Lee, T.A. Lee and A.S. Pickard, scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained the idea behind the economic drivers they examined in reaching their $50 billion plus conclusion.

“Heroin users are less productive than other society members due to premature death, enrollment in drug treatment centers; and drug-related hospitalizations, absenteeism, and unemployment. High rates of criminal activity and incarceration among heroin users further exacerbate the societal economic burden due to direct costs (e.g. value of stolen property and cost of incarceration) as well as productivity loss during incarceration,” they said.

Credit: Cat Branchman/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“Additionally, heroin use, specifically via injection, is associated with several infectious chronic diseases – Hepatitis C (HCV), Hepatitis B (HBV) HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis.”

For HIV alone, treatment cost is estimated at $300,000 per person over the course of their lifetime.

Consider, too, the loss of the great talents and contributions of the people heroin takes.

Pain as ‘The Fifth Vital Sign’

America’s painkiller epidemic was born out of the 1980s and the well-intentioned “Fifth Vital Sign” movement among the medical establishment. The idea was that nobody should have to suffer in pain.

And who can forget the “Smiley Face Pain Scale?” Unfortunately, it hasn’t left us with much to smile about.

Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale. Credit:

Officially called the Wong-Baker FACES scale, it originally was created to help children show how much pain they are in.

But pain is subjective. Who doesn’t want to feel as good as the happiest smiley face?

“Through the years, the ‘smiley face pain scale’ embraced by a well-intentioned medical establishment in the 1980s has turned into a skull and cross bones,” reported Talbott Recovery.

The Cycle of Opioid Use 

Now, the opioid-based painkillers that pharmaceutical companies churned out — and doctors so willingly prescribed — has created a national epidemic.

The opioids are so addictive, in fact, that people who progress to heroin cannot stop the drug safely without some sort of medication-assisted therapy. In essence, that leads to continued opioid use but allows users to function normally in daily life.

Advances are being made in these medications specifically aimed at helping heroin users stop for good. One drug in clinical trials called OMS405 actually shows promise in reducing heroin cravings and anxiety.

Related: Could This ‘Love Hormone’ Treat Drug Addiction?