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5 Addiction Terms to Stop Using (and what to say instead)

Updated: Mar 6

Research has shown that the words we use to describe substance use disorders (SUD) have a significant impact on those struggling with addiction and how they are treated.

Addiction Policy Forum’s three minute video explains why five commonly used addiction terms need to be erased from your vocabulary, and offers suggestions for what to say instead.

"It’s important to use language that is non-stigmatizing. For example, at the Addiction Policy Forum, we use the term substance use disorder instead of substance abuse. The latter is an outdated term that brings to mind criminal justice terminology like domestic abuse, child abuse, elder abuse, or animal abuse, when in actuality substance use disorder is a health condition; it is in the DSM-IV, has effective medical treatments and medications, and even has its own sub-specialty in the medical field. The use of non-stigmatizing language can help ensure that substance use disorder is correctly housed in the healthcare sphere where it belongs,” explains Jessica Hulsey, APF’s CEO.

When words are used inappropriately to describe individuals with a SUD, it not only negatively distorts societal perceptions of their illness but also feeds into the stigma that can prevent individuals from seeking help. In 2014, over 22 percent of individuals with a SUD did not seek out treatment because they felt that it would have a negative impact on their employment or the way in which their neighbors and community would view them [1].

The constant inundation of negative terminology surrounding SUDs in our own communities, as well as among health professionals, educators, policymakers, and the media reinforces these barriers that prevent individuals from seeking help. Research suggests that aligning our language to describe addiction with the prevailing research improved outcomes for the individuals.

For example, when referring to people who have a SUD (or any medical illness), it’s best to use person-first language — emphasizing the person before the disorder (“a person with a substance use disorder”), which restores and empowers the humanity of individuals, rather than defining them by their illness.


A Note From Addiction Policy Forum

Substance use disorders get worse over time. The earlier treatment starts the better the chances for long-term recovery. Many families are wrongly told to “wait for rock bottom” and that their loved one needs to feel ready to seek treatment in order for it to work. The idea that we should wait for the disease to get worse before seeking treatment is dangerous. Imagine if we waited until stage 4 to treat cancer. Decades of research has proven that the earlier someone is treated, the better their outcomes—and that treatment works just as well for patients who are compelled to start treatment by outside forces as it does for those who are self-motivated to enter treatment.

Help is Here

If you have questions or need to speak with someone for support, call or text (301)-200-3658 today. Our staff of trained counselors at Addiction Policy Forum provides free, confidential support to anyone in need of help with a Substance Use Disorder issue, including patients, families and healthcare providers.


1) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Results From The 2015 National Survey On Drug Use And Health: Detailed Tables. Retrieved from


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