Language Matters

Person-first language is proven to reduce stigma and improve treatment.

It's not about being sensitive, or polite, or politically correct. It's about access to quality treatment and care.

Person-first language doesn’t define a person based on any medical disorder she may have. It’s nonjudgmental, it’s neutral, and the diagnosis is purely clinical.

So, what’s the person-first language that we should use to talk about addiction?

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.


  • 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).


  • 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.

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.

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.