Heroin, once considered the habit of pathetic junkies, is being reborn as the drug of choice among the trend-setters of Generation X.
``Heroin is back,'' Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said yesterday at a news conference in Washington. ``And it's cheaper, more potent and deadlier than ever.''
Think Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana and a heroin addict whose 1994 suicide touched off a massive display of mourning among the grunge set.
Think of the pasty-faced, ultra-skinny models who roam fashion's runways sporting a look that the New York Times has dubbed ``heroin chic.''
And think of the critically acclaimed film Trainspotting, a kind of buddy movie featuring young heroin addicts roaming Europe.
Heroin use is relatively rare among American teens. But it is showing every sign of becoming ``the drug of the 1990s,'' said Richard Bonnette, president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, sponsor of the ad campaign.
``This campaign is a full-scale preemptive strike against this drug,'' Bonnette said. ``The goal is to deglamorize this drug.''
No one really knows how many heroin users there are in America. McCaffrey estimates maybe 600,000, mostly old-timers left over from the 1960s and 1970s. But since 1991, heroin has shown small but statistically frightening gains among teens.
Experimentation with heroin has nearly doubled among eighth graders, rising from 1.2 percent in 1991 to 2.3 percent in 1994. And only half of children 12 to 17 surveyed believe there's a ``great risk'' in trying heroin, compared with 86 percent of people over 35.
Emergency room admissions and deaths related to heroin are rising, McCaffrey said. In Philadelphia, there were 402 heroin-related deaths in 1994, up 68 percent over 1991.
One reason for the drug's increasing popularity: Recruits no longer have to use needles. Smoking or snorting is trendy - and far more socially acceptable. Many people erroneously believe it is somehow safer and won't lead to addiction.
Add the fact that ``music, fashion, film - all the things our kids care about portray heroin as hip,'' said Doria Steedman, director of creative development for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and heroin looks like a thermonuclear social disaster waiting to happen.
For this reason, the Partnership, best known for its old ``This is your brain on drugs'' spot, is focusing on heroin. The frying egg was powerful. But the new ads blow it away.
``This is not hyperbole. This is not exaggeration,'' Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said of the ads. ``The health and social effects of heroin abuse are far greater than anything you can imagine.''