Health report: Mass. struggling with illicit drugs

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BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts continues to struggle with the use of illegal drugs including heroin, while tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the commonwealth, according to a new report by the nonprofit Massachusetts Health Council.

Eastern Massachusetts appears to have been particularly hard hit by the use of illicit drugs, according to the report released Wednesday, which brings together findings from recent studies by state and federal agencies.

The report points to a federal 2011 study that found the Boston area had the highest rate of emergency department visits involving illicit drugs of any large metropolitan region in the U.S., topping New York City, Chicago and Detroit.

The Boston region — which includes Suffolk, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth and Essex counties, plus two counties in New Hampshire — also ranked first among the 11 major metropolitan regions for hospital visits specifically involving heroin, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study that summarized findings from 2009.

The Boston region's rate of emergency room visits involving heroin was 251 per 100,000 residents. That's nearly four times the national rate of 69 per 100,000 residents.

Gov. Deval Patrick called the report "worrisome," and said part of the problem was the ready availability of more potent heroin.

"As long as we have a problem and a problem of the scope that was reported on, there is more work to be done," he told reporters Tuesday.

"I'm sure that the public health folks in Boston and I would suspect and indeed encourage our team at the state level to see what those other cities are doing that might teach us some things," he added.

The report also stated that nearly 9,000 Massachusetts residents die each year from the effects of smoking, despite efforts to curb nicotine use.

Cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco products account for about one-third of all cancer deaths in the state, according to the report.

In 2011, the state Department of Public Health estimated the health care costs attributable to tobacco use — including hospital care — at about $4.3 billion annually, plus $1 billion or more in lost productivity, according to the report.

The report also found asthma rates are higher in Massachusetts than in the U.S. on average.

The report pointed to the American Lung Association, which has estimated there were more than 524,000 cases of adult asthma and more than 127,000 cases of pediatric asthma in Massachusetts in 2010.

Combined with cases of chronic bronchitis and emphysema, the association concluded that 15 percent of the state's population had breathing difficulties associated with lung disease.

The new report also included information on AIDS.

The number of people living with HIV and AIDS in Massachusetts continues to grow each year as diagnoses of new infections exceed the number of deaths among people with the disease.

As of December 31, 2011, there were 18,170 people living with HIV or AIDS who were diagnosed in Massachusetts. More than 2,100 Massachusetts residents with HIV or AIDS were first diagnosed in another state.

State health officials estimate 8,000 others may be infected, but either do not realize it or have not reported it.

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