Luzerne County saw a tenfold increase in fatal drug overdoses in the past four years, apparently as drug addicts aged and took a sometimes lethal combination of painkillers, alcohol and drugs, a medical researcher found.
"Obviously those people who died are just the tip of the iceberg," said Ernest Drucker, a medical school researcher who calls the overdose death rate an epidemic.
The county had six overdose deaths in 1998, 39 in 1999, 39 in 2000, 41 in 2001 and 64 last year, according to coroner's office records.
Overdose deaths among 35- to 44-year-olds in the county also spiraled upward _ from two in 1998 to 12 in 1999, 16 in 2000, 19 in 2001 and 24 in 2002.
Experienced addicts might use less heroin than they once did, but they have less tolerance, said Drucker, a medical school professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in the Bronx, N.Y., who reviewed the deaths.
Meanwhile, street heroin has gotten more potent and prescription painkillers more easily available, he said.
Addicts in Luzerne County, where heroin costs more than it does in larger cities like Philadelphia, might mix heroin with other substances to keep their costs down.