The way we communicate about addiction, its treatment, and treatment outcomes matters to individuals affected by addiction, their families, and communities.
Stigmatizing language can worsen addiction-related stigma and outcomes. Although non-professional terminology may be used by individuals with addiction, the role of clinicians, educators, researchers, policymakers, and community and cultural leaders is to actively work toward destigmatization of addiction and its treatment, in part through the use of non-stigmatizing language. Role-modeling better approaches can help us move away from the inaccurate, outdated view of addiction as a character flaw or moral failing deserving of punishment, and toward that of a chronic disease requiring long-term treatment. Non-stigmatizing, non-judgmental, medically-based terminology and the adoption of person-first language can facilitate improved communication as well as patient access to and engagement with addiction care. Person-first language, which shifts away from defining a person through the lens of disease (eg, the term “a person with addiction” is recommended over the terms “addict” or “addicted patient”), implicitly acknowledges that a patient's life extends beyond a given disease. While such linguistic changes may seem subtle, they communicate that addiction, chronic pain and other diseases are only one aspect of a person's health and quality of life, and can promote therapeutic relationships, reduce stigma and health and disparities in addiction care. This article provides examples of stigmatizing terms to be avoided and recommended replacements to facilitate the dialogue about addiction in a more intentional, therapeutic manner.