Why You Shouldn’t Use the Word “Addict”

Addiction is a disease.

It’s important that we use language that frames it as a health issue and shows respect to people with an addiction and to their families who are impacted. Just like we would with any other disease, like diabetes or asthma.

Showing respect and compassion to people with an addiction and their families

A person shouldn’t be defined or labeled by his or her disease or illness, it is something they have. For example: Instead of calling someone a “diabetic,” it’s preferable to use person-first language and say “someone with diabetes.” The same goes with the word “addict.”

We have a choice when we communicate. We can use words that perpetuate the negative stigma around substance use – words that label people with an addiction in a negative, shameful and judgmental way. Or we can use words that are compassionate, supportive and respectful – words that helps others understand substance use disorder as the health issue that it is.

By choosing to rethink and reshape our language, we will allow people with an addiction to more easily regain their self-esteem and more comfortably seek treatment, allow lawmakers to appropriate funding, allow doctors to deliver better treatment, allow insurers to increase coverage of evidence-based treatment and help the public understand this is a medical condition and should be treated as such.

The Associated Press took an important step to stop using stigmatizing language toward people struggling with a substance use disorder, recognizing that words have power. We invite you to do the same.

Here is a list of words and phrases to avoid and words to use in their place. Together, with a unified language, we can help reshape the landscape and end the negative stereotypes and stigma of addiction. And by doing so, we can remove barriers that continue to hold back too many people from the lifesaving treatment they need.

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AVOID SAYING: Abuse / Abuser

EXAMPLE: He’s a drug abuser.

WHY? Linked with violence, anger or a lack of control. Not positioned as a health issue and places blame on the person with an addiction.

INSTEAD SAY: Misuse, risky use, harmful use, inappropriate use, unhealthy use, hazardous use, problem use, unhealthy use, non-medical use; individual struggling with misuse, individual suffering with substance use disorder, individual struggling with chemical dependency.    

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AVOID SAYING: Addict

EXAMPLE: She’s an addict.

RELATED: alcoholic, crackhead, druggie, dopehead, doper, drunk, drunkard, junkie, pothead

WHY? The word addict is stigmatizing, reducing a person’s identity down to their struggle with substance use and denies their dignity and humanity. In addition, these labels imply a permanency to the condition, leaving no room for change. It’s better to use words that reinforce the medical nature of the condition.

INSTEAD SAY: A person with a substance use disorder (SUD), with addiction, in active addiction, experiencing an alcohol/drug problem, with an addictive disorder, with the disease of addiction, with an addictive disease; person who suffers/suffered with addiction; patient (if receiving treatment services).

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AVOID SAYING: User

EXAMPLE: He’s a drug user.

WHY? The term is stigmatizing because it labels a person by his or her behavior (much like “addict”).

INSTEAD SAY: Person who misuses alcohol/drugs; person engaged in risky use of substances.

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AVOID SAYING: Clean/Sober/Staying Clean/Clean Test

EXAMPLE: She smoked pot for many years but now she’s clean; His test was clean.

WHY? It associates illness symptoms with filth and implies a person struggling with a dependence on drugs or alcohol is inherently “dirty” or socially unacceptable. Same goes when referring to a drug test as a “clean test” (i.e. a negative result/no evidence of use) or “dirty test” (i.e. to a positive result/evidence of use). These terms regarding tests should also be avoided.

INSTEAD SAY: In recovery, addiction-free, addiction survivor, in remission, maintaining recovery, wellness, quality of life, substance-free; positive test or negative test.

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AVOID SAYING: Habit

EXAMPLE: She has a bad drug habit.

WHY? A habit is something that can easily be broken through persistence or willpower. Addiction is more complicated. As a disease of the brain, it requires medical treatment in addition to an emotional commitment to treatment and recovery. Calling addictive disorders a habit denies the medical nature of the condition and implies that resolution of the problem is simply a matter of willpower.

INSTEAD SAY: Substance use disorder (SUD), alcohol and drug disorder, alcohol and drug disease, active addiction, inappropriate use, hazardous use, problem use, non-medical use, unhealthy use, misuse, risky use, harmful use; person struggling with misuse, person suffering with substance use disorder, person struggling with chemical dependency, person who suffers/suffered from/with addiction.

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AVOID SAYING: Replacement/Substitution Therapy

Example: He takes Suboxone, a replacement therapy for his opioid addiction.

WHY? The use of this term applies to discussions surrounding treatments for opioid dependence like Methadone, Suboxone and Vivitrol. By describing them as “replacements,” it minimizes the validity of these treatments and implies that the individual is still actively using drugs. Methadone, Suboxone and Vivitrol are medications prescribed to a person suffering from an illness, the disease of opioid addiction. Addiction is an uncontrollable compulsive behavior. The first goal of addiction treatment is to stop this dangerous behavior. With medication-assisted treatment as part of a comprehensive treatment plan with behavioral counseling, the dangerous addictive behavior is stopped, not replaced – and life can be extended.

INSTEAD SAY: Medication-assisted treatment, anti-craving medication, medication, treatment.

Learn more about Medication-Assisted Treatment >> 

Michael Botticelli, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy

“For a long time, we’ve known that language plays a huge role in how we think about people and how people think about themselves. Words have to change so attitudes change.”

Michael Botticelli, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in The Boston Globe

What other words do you think should be replaced? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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Sources/Further Info:

AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
HARVARD HEALTH PUBLICATIONS, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
THE NATIONAL ALLIANCE OF ADVOCATES FOR BUPRENORPHINE TREATMENT
PRO TALK
RECOVERY RESEARCH INSTITUTE
UNDARK

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Editor’s Note: Some of our user-submitted stories and older blog posts on our website use “addict” and other words from the above list. We respect and understand those who choose to use certain terms to express themselves. However, when the Partnership creates new content, we will strive to use language that’s health-oriented, accurately reflects science, promotes evidence-based treatment and demonstrates respect and compassion.

17 Responses

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    Dr Ellen Friedman

    June 26, 2017 at 12:19 PM

    The word “clean” is one of the most pernicious terms used. What other disease renders a person clean or dirty? and causes so much shame? Please include it in your next list.

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    Eric Wood, MA LCAC

    June 26, 2017 at 9:58 AM

    In the early 90s while I was working at a community mental health center, I had the good fortune to hear a colleague speak about the need to stop using the term “borderlines” to describe people suffering with borderline personality disorder. Sure, it may sound ‘PC’ to some, but words do matter, because they mold and shape our reality. Kierkegaard said, “Once you label me, you negate me.” The label doesn’t only affect the way I see myself, but the way you see me — and more importantly, the way you treat me. Few labels in our language connote the degree of shame as “addict” and “alcoholic.” A person with a substance use disorder is still, first and foremost, a person.

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    Ken Wolski

    June 26, 2017 at 9:34 AM

    The “negative stigma” associated with substance use disorders (SUD) will end when we stop arresting people for using certain drugs. You say you want treat SUD as a disease, but we do not lock people up when a disease relapses. We need to end the criminal justice approach to treating a health problem

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    MaryAnne Murray

    June 26, 2017 at 12:48 AM

    Another term to taboo: a baby “born addicted.” Addiction, or a substance use disorder, implies volitional use of a substance or behavior in demonstration of ineffective coping, and continued use despite adverse consequences in multiple domains (e.g., social, legal, vocational, etc.) of life. A baby can’t makes those choices! Babies born to persons struggling with addiction problems already face many challenges in their early lives. Let’s not further stigmatize them by saying they are congenital addicts. Thanks for reading and considering this!

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    Guida Brown

    June 25, 2017 at 11:50 PM

    You really want us to refer to folks as being “addiction free.” Yeah. How could that POSSIBLY confuse anyone?

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