Our Words Matter: Non-Stigmatizing Addiction Language

The language we use to describe people with substance use disorders can perpetuate addiction-related stigma. By carefully choosing the words we use, we increase the likelihood of having a positive impact rather than a negative one.1

This page will provide information and tips for using person-centered language to reduce addiction-related stigma. Continue reading to learn more about what stigma is, terms to use and avoid, and why it matters.

Addiction Stigma

Stigma refers to negative attitudes or beliefs toward others on the basis of distinctive characteristics.1 Negative attitudes may be attributed to specific groups of people, places, or countries.2

People who use substances or have a substance use disorder are a group of people that many others have inaccurate, negative beliefs toward.1 For example, people who use substances may be viewed as:2

  • Threatening.
  • Choosing to use substances.
  • Responsible for having a substance use disorder (if applicable).

Addiction-related stigma is presumed to stem from antiquated and mistaken ideas about addiction, such as the belief that it is a “moral failing,” despite substance use disorder being a chronic yet treatable medical condition.2

It may also come from a place of fear or misunderstanding.3 Misperceptions about addiction and using stigmatizing language can lead to negative outcomes.2,3

How Stigma Affects Those With Substance Use Disorder

Stigma can negatively impact people with substance use disorder and others’ perceptions about addiction more broadly. Unfortunately, substance use disorder is considered one of the most stigmatized conditions, as many do not want to interact with or support people with a substance use disorder.4

The 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health asked people aged 12 and older—who were classified as needing addiction treatment but did not receive treatment—the reasons why they did not seek treatment. Of the reasons for not receiving treatment:5

  • 10.4% (134,000) did not receive substance use disorder treatment due to concerns that getting such treatment would lead to their neighbors/community having a negative opinion of them.
  • 9.9% (127,000) did not want other people to find out they needed substance use treatment.

Stigma can affect people with substance use disorder in other ways, including:

  • Prematurely stopping treatment.4
  • Leading to the development of “self-stigma” or the internalizing of stigmatized beliefs. Self-stigma can lead to poor outcomes via decreased self-esteem.1
  • Generating and maintaining feelings of isolation among people who use substances.6
  • Some research has found that healthcare professionals’ beliefs about patients with substance use disorder diagnoses can lead to frustration and expectations of poor outcomes when working with patients who have substance use disorders.4

What We Can Do to Destigmatize Addiction

When interacting with others, people can carefully choose the words they use when talking about substance use and other mental health conditions.7 Intentionally selecting non-stigmatizing language can help reduce stigma and associated misunderstandings about addiction.3

Here are some tips for using non-stigmatizing language related to addiction:

  • “Substance use disorder” should be used to describe people who have been formally diagnosed. Even if they use illegal substances (e.g., heroin), if they are not diagnosed, terms such as heroin use or heroin misuse may be more appropriate.4
  • Choose to use “person-first language,” which places the focus on the person instead of their medical diagnosis, which can help reduce stereotypes and stigma.6 An example of person-first language is referring to someone who consumes alcohol as a person with an alcohol use disorder rather than labeling them as an addict. This approach also reflects a neutral, nonjudgmental tone.
  • Like other medical conditions, addiction should be acknowledged and talked about in the same way and in a manner that is backed by science—addiction is a medical condition, not a moral failing.2
  • If someone you care about uses substances or has a substance use disorder, you can ask them how they prefer other people refer to them.3

Addiction Terms to Use, Terms to Avoid, and Why

The list below includes non-stigmatizing language to consider using when talking about substance use, addiction, and people with substance use disorders.

Avoid: Addict

Use Instead: Person with substance use disorder

Why: Uses neutral, person-first language, focusing on describing a person with a problem instead of the person being the problem

Avoid: Alcoholic

Use Instead: Person with alcohol use disorder

Why: Represents terminology that is less stigmatizing and avoids shrinking a person’s identity to their alcohol use7

Avoid: Drunk

Use Instead: Person who misuses alcohol, Person who engages in unhealthy alcohol use

Why: Non-judgmental and person-first language that avoids placing blame on the person2

Avoid: User

Use Instead: Person with [substance] use disorder or [substance] addiction

Why: By using this language, the person is the focus rather than their disorder. Replace [substance] with the name of the substance the person uses, for example, if the person is using opioids, you could say “a person with opioid use disorder” or “a person who uses opioids.”2

Avoid: Substance or drug abuser

Use Instead: Person with a substance use disorder, Patient

Why: The alternative language emphasizes that a person has a problem rather than is the problem, thereby minimizing negative biases and attitudes.2

Avoid: Junkie

Use Instead: Person in active use (use the person’s name followed by the phrase “is in active use”)

Why: Non-judgmental, person-first language, emphasizing the person instead of labeling them based on their substance use2

Avoid: Reformed addict

Use Instead: Person who previously used drugs/substances

Why: Neutral, person-first language that minimizes negative judgments2

Avoid: Former addict

Use Instead: Person in recovery/long-term recovery

Why: Neutral, person-first language that minimizes negative judgments2

Avoid: Abuse

Use Instead: Use (for illicit substances); Misuse or used other than prescribed (for prescription medications)

Why: The word “abuse” is associated with negative views and punishment and using this alternative language helps reduce negative judgment. Because prescription medications have legitimate medical uses when used by the person they are prescribed to, when someone consumes prescription medications outside of the prescribed instructions, this constitutes misuse.2

Avoid: Habit

Use Instead: Substance use disorder or drug addiction2

Why: Referring to substance use disorder as a habit disregards the medical nature of addiction, and inaccurately implies that substance use is a choice, undermining the medical nature of addiction.2,7

Avoid: Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)

Use Instead: Pharmacotherapy, Medication for a substance use disorder, Addiction medicine

Why: MAT suggests that pharmacological intervention should be temporary or supplemental, whereas using the suggested language is consistent with how medications are used in treating other conditions.2

Avoid: Opioid substitution replacement therapy

Use Instead: Opioid agonist therapy, Medication for opioid use disorder

Why: The terminology “opioid substitution replacement” incorrectly implies that medications simply replace one drug with another.2

Avoid: Clean

Use Instead: For toxicology purposes: Testing negative; For non-toxicology purposes: Being in remission or recovery, Not drinking or taking drugs, Not currently or actively using drugs

Why: Reflects clinical, non-stigmatizing language as would be used for other health conditions2

Avoid: Dirty

Use Instead: For toxicology purposes: Testing positive; For non-toxicology purposes: Person who uses substances/drugs

Why: Reflects clinical, non-stigmatizing language whereas the stigmatizing language can potentially reduce a person’s sense of hope and belief they can change2

Avoid: Slip, Lapse, Relapse

Use Instead: A return to use

Why: Neutral, non-judgmental language that avoids eliciting harmful associations8

Avoid: Detox

Use Instead: Withdrawal management, Management of withdrawal symptoms

Why: Detox implies a need for the person to be “cleansed” from their substance use6

Avoid: Addicted baby

Use Instead: Baby born to someone who used substances during pregnancy, Baby showing signs of withdrawal from prenatal drug exposure

Why: Babies exposed to substances in utero can be born exhibiting withdrawal symptoms, but they are not born with a substance addiction8

Avoid: Crack baby

Use Instead: Newborn exposed to substances

Why: Person-first language accurately reflects the situation (exposure to substances rather than having an addiction) and reduces stigma8

Avoid: Neonatal abstinence syndrome baby

Use Instead: Baby with neonatal abstinence syndrome, Baby with neonatal opioid withdrawal

Why: Neutral, non-stigmatizing language should be used as recommended for other medical conditions8

Find Help for Addiction at Desert Hope

If you or someone you care about is struggling with substance misuse or addiction, Desert Hope Treatment Center is here to help. Contact an admissions navigator today at to learn more about the available types of addiction treatment, such as outpatient and inpatient rehab in Las Vegas.

Our admissions navigators can also help you start the treatment admissions process, discuss ways to cover the cost of treatment, and help verify your insurance coverage.

You can also instantly for rehab online now.

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