Language is powerful. It reflects our values and beliefs, and impacts our thoughts and actions. Much of the language that society uses to describe people who use alcohol and/or other drugs is negative and degrading. Terms like abuser, junkie, addict, drunk, user, perpetuate stigma and discrimination*. This affects both the individual’s self-esteem and their treatment by others. As a result, people who use alcohol and/or other drugs become marginalized and alienated from the supports they need, including health and social services.

There is no other health issue for which the term ‘abuse’ is used [1].

Stigma and discrimination

Stigmatizing language can create a barrier for people who use drugs to access supports and services because they do not feel welcomed. Stigmatizing language also reduces individuals to one aspect of their identity that is not fair or accurate. Individuals are more than their substance use, they are people first. They are mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, musicians, artists, students, teachers and much more. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

A study about language used by substance use treatment providers found that when individuals were referred to as ‘substance abusers’ more punitive interventions were recommended. When people were said to have a ‘substance use disorder,’ treatment options were recommended [2]. This shows that even among highly trained clinicians, variations in language can directly impact the type of treatment they provide to someone who is seeking help.

Don’t say Say
Drug/substance abuser People who use alcohol or drugs
Drug/substance abuse Drug/substance use 
Addict People with substance use issues
Addiction substance use issue

It is important to note that while we should not attach negative labels to other people, individuals should be able to self identify as they wish.

Some people seek to ‘reclaim’ negative language, as a way of taking the power of that language back for themselves. This is similar to what has happened in the 2SLGBTQ+ community with words such as ‘queer’.

* The Oxford English Dictionary defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person”, and discrimination as “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people.” [1] White, W., Kelly, J.F. (2010). Alcohol/Drug/Substance Abuse: The History and (Hopeful) Demise of a Pernicious Label. Commentary.
[2] Kelly, J.F., & Westerhoff, C.M., (2009). Does it matter how we refer to individuals with substance-related conditions? A randomized study of two commonly used terms. International Journal of Drug Policy, in press.