Here are some ways to avoid using words that stigmatize substance use and addiction:
- Use “people-first language.” For instance, refer to a “person who uses substances”, or a “person who has a substance use disorder”; and not a “drug user”, “addict” or “alcoholic”. This is more neutral language that helps to maintain the individuality of the person.
- Refer to “substance use” rather than “substance abuse”. “Abuse” or “abuser” has been shown to contribute to negative judgments about people with substance use disorders, and may suggest that people should be punished rather than receive treatment.
- Choose to recognize that substance use disorders are health disorders. They are not the result of any kind of character flaw or lack of personal willpower. In fact, substance use disorders are the second most common mental health disorder.
- Choose to refer to “drug poisoning” rather than a “drug overdose” as the latter perpetuates the myth that a person has “brought this on themselves”.
- Referring to a “drug habit,” or “drug of choice” implies that the person can simply choose to stop. Refer instead to “the substance a person is using”.
- Choose language that promotes the recovery process. This means not describing a person as being “clean” or “dirty” but rather as “not currently using substances”. Also, refer to a person who is not using substances, or is reducing use, as being “in recovery”.
- Avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes and biases through the use of slang and pejorative names.
- The recommended use of non-stigmatizing language also applies when describing a person with other mental health problems and illnesses.
Michael P. Botticelli. Memo: Changing the Language of Addiction, Office of the National Drug Control Policy. 2017. (
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Michael P. Botticelli,& Howard K.Koh. Changing the Language of Addiction. JAMA October 4, 2016 Volume 316, Number 13