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Reframing the Way We Talk About Addiction

Language is more important than we give it credit – the way we frame a conversation and paint a mental picture is immensely influential on how that information is received.

The words we use regarding drug use and addiction can affect a person’s recovery, and medical professionals agree that improving the language around substance use and substance-related harm is a growing priority in the medical community and beyond.

What kind of words are recommended?

Choosing language that is empowering, respectful, and accurate is demonstrating a level of maturity that benefits all parties and lifts others up, rather than tears down.

Using language that is clinically accurate with specificity tailored to each individual’s needs and behaviors is encouraged, otherwise known as “person-first” language. Avoiding words with “negative explicit bias” is recommended.

While refusing to use dismissive language may seem natural, it’s also important to understand that shifting language takes time and is a dynamic process that occurs on various cultural and societal layers. Our conversations around substance use and related harm will continue to evolve as our stigmas of those with substance use disorders.

The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook edited their guidelines in 2017 when recommending the word “addict” no longer be used as a noun. It laid out recommendations that separated the individual from the disease and described the affliction without prescribing that identity to the person.


The AP Stylebook makes the following recommendations for writing about substance use, addiction, and recovery:

  • Avoid words like “alcoholic,” “addict,” “user,” and “abuser” unless they are in quotations or are the names of organizations
  • Choose phrasing “she was addicted” or “he used drugs” or “people with opioid addiction”
  • Refer to someone who habitually and compulsively uses drugs or drinks alcohol as a “person with addiction”
  • Refer to the disease affecting a person’s brain and behavior as “addiction” or a “substance-use disorder”

In addition, the White House published Changing the Language of Addiction, a document addressing terminology related to substance use and substance use disorders. In it, it states that “substance use disorder (the most severe form of which is referred to as ‘addiction’) is a chronic brain disorder from which people can and do recover. Nonetheless, sometimes the terminology used in the discussion of substance use can suggest that problematic use of substances and substance use disorders are the result of a personal failing; that people choose the disorder, or they lack the willpower or character to control their substance use.”

It recommends using expressions like “person with a mental condition” or “person with a disability” while replacing more outdated terms like “abuse” and “dependence” with one classification as “substance use disorder.” Using words like “drug habit,” for example, may inaccurately imply that the individual using the substances is actively choosing to use the substance or is able to choose to stop.

For those in recovery, the White House recommends clinically accurate terminology that steers clear of colloquial terms like “clean” and “dirty.” Rather, for “clean,” one can use the terms “negative” (for a toxicology screen) or “not currently using substances,” and instead of “dirty,” one can use the term “positive” (for a toxicology screen) or “person who is currently using substances.” A “person in recovery” is an individual who is “stopping or at least reducing substance use to a safer level, and reflects a process of change.”

If you pay attention to the health section of your local newspaper, you’ll probably notice that many journalists have not caught up to these stylistic changes. This only underlines the importance of language choice and how it frames the humanity of our conversation. It influences the decisions about what should and can be done to fix the problem.

The way we talk about things has a direct connection to how we act and what we do. We have the power to tell a truthful story of drug use and its very real implications on our daily lives.

Words do matter, and they do have the power to change minds and perceptions. They allow us to see the most complete picture possible and reflect a rational, science-based approach to the understanding of how addiction develops and what we can do to help people cope.

Changes by the AP and the White House truly could make it more likely that people come forward with their stories, sharing their truth while reclaiming their humanity without the fear that others will tear it down from them. Reframing the way we talk about substance use disorder can lead to those suffering to access the care they need and not feel ashamed for seeking it.

Addiction isn’t a crime or a sin. It is important that address those individuals coping with pain as humans. We be mindful in our word choice in order to not perpetuate harmful stigmas and stereotypes and ensuring that we allow individuals to become the best version of themselves.

Always remember to put the person first, not the disease or affliction.

At Ethos Structured Sober Living, we are our brother’s keeper, providing a supportive environment in empowering those in our community to maintain a sober and healthy lifestyle.

Please reach out at (323) 942-9996.