Philip Seymour Hoffman's death highlights heroin addiction in US - KMSP-TV

Philip Seymour Hoffman's death highlights heroin addiction in US

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Fans of film got a shock on Sunday when headlines announced Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of an apparent overdose in his apartment in New York City.

TMZ reports the actor was found with a needle in his arm, and an envelope containing what is believed to be heroin was found nearby.

The 46-year-old often spoke candidly about his drug addiction. He admitted to relapsing last year after spending 23 years sober. That led to a stint in rehab for the popular character actor who was nominated for four Academy Awards and won Best Actor in 2006 for his portrayal of Truman Capote. Recently, he had started in the popular Hunger Games film.

His loss marks the latest celebrity death in recent years linked to drugs. Cory Monteith, star of "Glee," also died of a heroin overdose, and Heath Ledger died in 2008 of prescription drug abuse -- including opiate painkillers. Yet, the problem isn't just in Hollywood.

Heroin and opiate addiction knows no bounds. Research shows heroin use has grown in the Twin Cities, and at least 17 other major metropolitan areas in the U.S. are identifying heroin abuse as a national problem -- one that experts say is reminiscent of the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.

"It all starts with prescription drug abuse, and then those people who get very desperate graduate to using heroin because it's more available. It's cheaper," explained Dr. Joseph Lee, M.D.

The images of heroin use that are pushed out in movies often depict extreme scenes. Socially, its use is still taboo, but doctors who deal with addiction to the dangerous drug say the path to a potentially-deadly addiction often begins at the medicine cabinet.

"For people who are vulnerable to addiction, when they start using any kind of pain medication -- if they get Vicodin, hydrocodone, oxycodone -- it doesn't matter," Lee said. "Their brain says, 'I need more.' They can develop a serious disease, and heroin is often the end point of that disease."

Over the past decade, heroin and opiate addiction have steadily risen in the Twin Cities, and other areas of the country are also seeing growth in both magnitude and consequence.

"Heroin is changing the landscape to this country, and there's really no one who's immune from that," said Carol Falkowski, a drug abuse researcher who found a record high of treatment admissions were for heroin in 2013 -- up almost a full percent from 2012 to 13.6 percent.

According to Falkowski, the trend with heroin seems to mirror what transpired with another drug nearly 30 years ago.

"Across the country, what's happening with heroin today is reminiscent of what happened with cocaine in the 1980s -- significant increases in many U.S. cities; newer, younger users; low-cost drugs; more overdose deaths," she explained.

Falkowski's annual drug abuse trend report indicates that Hennepin County reported 69 accidental deaths related to opiates in the first half of 2013 alone. In 2012, the total number tallied to 84.

READ: Minneapolis/St. Paul Drug Abuse Trends

Lee adds that one of the main risks associated with opiates -- including heroin, hydrocodone, and oxycodone -- is that they can shut down a portion of the brain that regulates breathing.

"It's impossible to tell when you're going to overdose," Lee said. "A lot of people think they're experienced. They think they're using the right dosage, the right amount and are doing it the right way -- but there is no right way. Every time you use could be your last time."

If toxicology reports do confirm that Hoffman died of a heroin overdose, Lee says his death is proof that addiction can stay at anyone's heels for life.

"A relapse for a person with addiction is no different than someone with heart disease having chest pain," Lee said. "It's a lifelong thing for many people."

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