By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Tuesday urged more local police and fire departments to equip their officers with a medication used to revive people who have overdosed on heroin, citing a troubling increase in deaths from the drug.
Naloxone, a blocking agent that can reverse the effects of an overdose and help restore breathing, has been used by law enforcement and first responders in some cities and municipalities, but its use needs to be expanded, U.S. drug officials said.
"Naloxone can save lives," the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy said in a statement.
"Because police are often the first on the scene of an overdose, the Obama administration strongly encourages local law enforcement agencies to train and equip their personnel with this lifesaving drug," said Gil Kerlikowske, the office's director.
Officials' push for more life-saving treatment comes as actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's death from an apparent overdose has revived a national debate over drug abuse, with a spotlight on heroin.
Heroin use has jumped by 80 percent in recent years, drug control officials said, with 669,000 Americans saying they had used the drug in 2012, up from 373,000 in 2007. But it is still rare compared to other substance abuse, Kerlikowske told reporters in a conference call.
Data show prescription opioid painkiller abuse far outpaces heroin and continues to grow even as U.S. drug officials and the Food and Drug Administration take steps to combat their illicit use.
About 12.5 million people abused prescription opioids in 2012, about the same as in 2007, U.S. government data show. About 3,000 people died from heroin overdose in 2010 compared to more than 16,600 deaths from opioid painkiller overdose.
Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, said the number of so-called "frequent users" of heroin has risen leading to the spike in deaths even as casual use has fallen.
Officials acknowledged a link between the use of prescription painkillers and heroin but dismissed the notion that people are moving to heroin as a direct result of efforts to block access to prescription pain medications.
Instead, officials blamed economics.
"There is evidence to suggest that some users eventually begin to substitute pills with heroin, which is often cheaper than prescription drugs," Kerlikowske said.
Some states and municipalities, including parts of New York City, have already launched programs to equip law enforcement with naloxone. Twenty states also already have laws on naloxone access or so-called "good Samaritan" laws to protect those who try to help an overdose victim, or both.
On Tuesday, Boston also plans to announce efforts to expand use of naloxone among police and fire fighters as well as addicts' family members and caregivers, officials said.
NIH's Compton, an epidemiologist and expert on drug abuse, said the medication's few side effects make it a safe and effective treatment for local authorities to adopt.
"The men and women in law enforcement understand that saving a life is far more important than making an arrest," Kerlikowske added.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone and Chris Reese)