In a development which has significant cultural ramifications within the closely knit and predominantly Muslim Bangladeshi community, young girls as well as boys are becoming hooked on the drug.
The problem, which drug treatment workers say has emerged almost from nowhere in the past two years, is a further indication of how heroin is penetrating all sections of British society.
Staff at the Addaction Tower Hamlets Community Drugs Team in east London said yesterday that the drug was "everywhere". Jeff Evans, the team leader, said: "We recently had a group of schoolchildren come in here who had found a big bag of heroin. They had smoked the whole lot. All the children around here know what to do with it."
Heroin has also gripped the Vietnamese community in neighbouring Hackney, leading to plans for Britain's first drug rehabilitation centre for non- English speaking clients.
Many of the Vietnamese heroin users are former "boat people" who were introduced to the drug while living in refugee camps in Hong Kong.
Tower Hamlets has an association with drug use which dates back to the last century when the docks at Wapping and Limehouse received trade from across the empire.
The guide on the Docklands Light Railway tells tourists of the wharfside "opium dens" that existed in what was London's original Chinatown.
Most would be unaware that beneath the railway's elevated tracks, the streets are littered with the silver foil of the modern opiate user.
Mr Evans said children report that dealers sell "gear" in a pounds 2 package, which comprises a small paper wrap of the drug and an attached strip of silver foil for smoking it.
Just four years ago, the treatment centre had only a couple of Bengali clients. It now has 146 under the age of 25. For most of them, heroin was the first drug they had tried.
Youth worker Kirsty Blenkins said it was common for several boys in the same family to face addiction problems. "They are living [at an average of] 3.5 people to a room in Tower Hamlets and if you're sharing a bedroom, it is easy to learn how to use heroin."
She said the centre was now starting to see increasing numbers of women, mostly in their late teens, who have become addicted after smoking heroin with their boyfriends. The women are in danger of becoming outcasts if their drug habits become known.
Outreach worker Monzur Ahmed said: "They are worried that their brother or someone from the estate might come in and see them here. It would be bad for their reputation. People would think, `Is she a prostitute? Where does she get her money for the drugs from?' She could face a stigma." The team plans to appoint a young Bengali woman to help the female users to come forward for treatment in confidence.
The centre is one of only a handful in Britain to receive police referrals of people found in possession of Class A drugs.
Offenders who are prepared to undergo an assessment session with drug counsellors are likely to be given only a caution by the courts.
The scheme, which is supported by local police chiefs, has helped 111 offenders to address their drug-taking. Of these, 59 have asked to take part in extended treatment programmes, where they can receive a range of therapies, including acupuncture.Reuse content