Though the death rate from drug overdoses in Philadelphia has held relatively steady since the late 1990s, suburban counties and all of South New Jersey have had such sharp increases in body counts their rates have as much as tripled, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The scourge of primarily heroin addiction, which seemed to gain momentum outside the urban line in the mid-2000s, has only grown in lethality in suburban and rural communities despite law enforcement’s efforts to curb it. In the seven counties rimming Philadelphia, 310 drug deaths were reported in 1999. In 2013, the toll, apparently driven largely by heroin, was 781. That year in the city (with less than half the population), 402 died.
More than raw numbers of victims, the alarming story lies in the overdose mortality rates. Given the paucity of studies, “what you are seeing with the suburban areas is something we don’t understand,” said Magdalena Cerdá, a substance-abuse epidemiologist at Columbia University. “Research on drug overdoses historically has focused on urban areas.” What experts know is that today’s heroin addicts tend to be younger, more affluent, and often naive about how to get the best possible high without triggering an overdose that slows breathing until it stops. Typically, they got hooked on drugs not on the street, but in the medicine cabinet. “Prescription pain pills often came first,” said Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez, who helps coordinate the county’s response to addiction.