Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was apparently from an overdose; but is heroin to blame, or was it a possible combination of drugs? Heroin was found in the actor’s New York City apartment, with a reported 50 bags found. In addition, addiction treatment medication, blood pressure medication and a muscle relaxant were also found.
The Monday autopsy will show what was in Hoffman’s system, but the possible combination of substances harkens back to Cory Monteith’s overdose last July. The young Glee star was found dead in his apartment with a mixture of both heroin and alcohol in his system. Reports on heroin and its increasing prevalence abounded in the wake of both deaths, but another hypothesis surfaced.
Discussions on drug criminalization and whether drug-related deaths are caused by the drugs themselves or another factor came to a head, especially in light of Monteith’s passing. InTheKnow, a drug education company, reports that 80 percent of deaths associated with heroin are due to a lethal mixture with alcohol or another substance. Is the heroin to blame, or alcohol?
To get to the bottom of the question, a few facts must be examined. How many people die due to alcohol? How many die from heroin overdose? How many die from a combination of both? In the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman, is heroin to blame for his death, or could his death be due to a combination of drugs? Although the last question will never be answered conclusively, even in light of the autopsy, a hypothesis can be made based on what is currently known.
Nearly 88,000 people die every year from overconsumption of alcohol, out of roughly 124.5 million over 18 who regularly drink alcohol. This equates to only .07 percent of people who have died from over drinking. Regular alcohol consumption is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as 12 or more drinks per year.
Data from Philadelphia, where heroin use has increased significantly, shows that between 2008 and 2011, the number of people who died with heroin in their system increased by 182 percent. Of all drug and alcohol-related deaths in Philadelphia, heroin was present more frequently than any other drug in cases where illicit drugs contributed to mortality.
Though this data is not exactly comparable, it seems that fewer people who drink alcohol die than those who use heroin. Hoffman had used both in the past, but it seems that heroin had more of a hand in his death. The total number of deaths from alcohol is greater than the total number of deaths due to all illegal drugs combined, but the percentage of people who use illicit drugs is far less, too. Only 669,000 people used heroin in 2012, and only 1.8 percent of people over the age of 12 reported ever using heroin in their lives.
Since alcohol is consumed orally, the liver and stomach process it before entering the bloodstream and reaching the brain. Heroin is dangerous because it is often injected, putting it directly into the bloodstream and allowing it to reach the brain in higher, more deadly, concentrations. Heroin, a derivative of morphine, is more effective than morphine at bypassing the body’s blood-brain barrier. Once in the brain, heroin is converted back into morphine, meaning that injecting heroin delivers more morphine to the brain.
Mixing drugs can cause unintended consequences and heighten side effects. Heroin overdose can cause people to stop breathing, and alcohol can cause dehydration. Common side effects of other illicit drugs include decreased blood pressure, dizziness and rapid heart rate. Heroin and alcohol are both depressants, which is why the two in combination are more likely to cause death.
While heroin is indisputably fatal, taking the time to examine the true cause of death facilitates understanding and has societal and policy implications. Whether Hoffman’s death was the direct result of heroin or a combination of drugs cannot be known, but if nothing else, it serves as a cautionary tale to be careful with any drug.
By Julia Waterhous