The recent deaths of actors Cory Monteith and Philip Seymour Hoffman has shined a spotlight on the rise in heroin use in the U.S. What’s the connection to opioid pain pill addiction? WSJ’s Jason Bellini has #TheShortAnswer.

The death of actor

Philip Seymour Hoffman

from an apparent heroin overdose underscores the drug’s resurgence in recent years, fueled by a growing supply from Latin America and a crackdown on prescription narcotics that has pushed addicts to seek old-fashioned alternatives.

The number of heroin users in the U.S. jumped almost 80% to an estimated 669,000 in 2012 from 373,000 in 2007, according to surveys by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Annual overdose deaths attributed to heroin hit 3,094 in 2010, the most recent data available, up 55% from 2000, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Unlike the heroin scourge of the late 1960s to early 1980s, which was concentrated in urban centers, today’s epidemic is ravaging suburbs and rural areas as well. At a National Institute on Drug Abuse meeting last month, 17 of 20 researchers from across the country reported that heroin was their top emerging issue, said

James Hall,

an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University’s Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities in Miami.

“Heroin doesn’t have any sort of geographic or demographic boundaries,” said

Rusty Payne,

a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington. “It touches pretty much every segment of society.”

A major factor driving the heroin comeback are prescription pain-pill addicts who have switched to heroin as the pills became “too expensive or less accessible,” said

Gil Kerlikowske,

the White House drug czar. Heroin is cheaper yet part of the same family of drugs as oxycodone and other opioids, whose illegal use has been subject to a crackdown by law enforcement.

A 30-year-old recovering addict and Army veteran in Camden, N.J., holds a bag of heroin.
Getty Images

About 80% of people trying heroin for the first time previously used prescription pain drugs, according to a report last year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. New users typically start off smoking or snorting the powder, then sometimes move on to injecting it, which causes the quickest and most intense high.

Another factor is that heroin manufacturers in Mexico have boosted production in recent years, drug officials say. Traffickers increasingly are distributing Mexican heroin not just in the western U.S., where it has long prevailed, but in the East, which had been dominated by Colombian supply.

Heroin seizures along the border between the U.S. and Mexico rose 232% from 2008 to 2012, to 1,855 kilograms, according to DEA data.

Batches also generally have become more potent, in part because of more sophisticated production methods, officials said.

While heroin is diluted with other substances as it makes its way to the street, retail buyers often get a purer product than in decades past, said

James Hunt,

special agent in charge of the DEA’s New York division. While a dose of heroin in the 1980s might have been 5% pure, it is not uncommon to find a street bag today that is 50% pure, making it potentially more lethal, he said.

Moreover, heroin is sometimes combined with other dangerous drugs, including the synthetic opiate fentanyl. That combination has been blamed for a spate of deaths in recent months along the East Coast, including 37 in Maryland and 22 in Pennsylvania.

Users “think they’re getting regular street heroin,” said

Thomas Carr,

director of the Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. “Instead, they’re getting something that could kill a horse.”

In the case of Mr. Hoffman, toxicology tests are pending. Police found several envelopes in his New York City apartment that contained what is believed to be heroin.

The heroin supply in New York has surged since 2009, said

Bridget Brennan,

special narcotics prosecutor for the city. “We started to see production mills that were capable of producing hundreds of thousands” of bags a day, she said. The current epidemic rivals that of the 1970s in scope, Ms. Brennan said. But “the change is the new user,” she said. “That new user tends to be younger and more affluent.”

—Pervaiz Shallwani contributed to this article.

Write to Arian Campo-Flores at and Zusha Elinson at