A new study finds that the modern heroin addict is young and white, lives outside of urban areas, and shifted to the narcotic after first abusing prescription pain pills.

The study published Wednesday by JAMA Psychiatry backed the personal findings offered by treatment professionals interviewed for last week's series in The News-Item, "Life, Death & Drugs," on local heroin and pain pill addiction.

"In the past, heroin was a drug that introduced people to narcotics," principal investigator Theodore J. Cicero said in a press release from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "But what we're seeing now is that most people using heroin begin with prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet or Vicodin, and only switch to heroin when their prescription drug habits get too expensive."

According to the study, 90 percent of addicts are white. There is a near equal split between males and females. And 75 percent got started on medication like oxycodone. Three out of four live in suburban or rural areas.

A shift to heroin

There were 9,346 opioid-dependant addiction treatment patients from 150 different facilities across the country who completed a survey between 2010 and 2013 used in the study.

Of the 2,797 who identified heroin as their primary drug, almost half prefer prescription drugs. It's "cleaner," they say, but heroin is "cheaper" and "easier to find."

Manufacturers reformulated pain pills to make it more difficult to crush or dissolve the medication. Cicero said this helped addicts shift to heroin, an unexpected consequence.

Almost every patient admitted to abusing another substance in the month prior to seeking treatment, and 66 percent said that other substance was prescription opioid.

No longer urban

Heroin abuse had long been viewed as a problem for urban males. In the 1960s, that was the case. About 80 percent of people seeking treatment 50 years ago were male, were minorities and started directly with heroin at the average age of 16.

The study concludes the demographic shift is largely influenced by the widespread availability of prescription medication such as oxycodone that dates to the 1990s.

First-time heroin users are older now, about 23. That's likely because of the users' initial abuse of prescription medication.

In 2010, there were 38,329 drug overdose deaths in the U.S., 16,651 involving prescription opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heroin claimed 3,094 that same year.