Language About Addiction Should Be Carefully Chosen

Journalists don’t use stigmatizing words to describe people with cancer or heart disease, so why use words that stigmatize people with addiction as “addicts” and “drug abusers”?

Dr. Richard Saitz, Boston University professor and senior editor of the Journal of Addiction Medicine, said no one would choose to be an addict. It is beyond their choice because addiction is a genetic predisposition that afflicts 15 percent of the population.

So Saitz counseled journalists to avoid using negative words for people fighting the illness of addiction. Even if people describe themselves as addicts, he said, “That’s simply a demonstration of internalized stigma.”

The Associated Press Stylebook, the bible used by most newsrooms, does not address the language of addiction. Journalists are increasingly covering these issues as part of the public health crisis of opioid misuse.

Saitz said “I didn’t come to be the word police” but offered suggestions to journalists who write about addiction and opioids. His suggestions prompted a spirited discussion among National Press Foundation fellows.

Avoid using these words:

  • Abuse, abuser, user, addict, alcoholic
  • Substitution, replacement
  • Clean, dirty
  • Misuse
  • Relapse
  • Binge
  • Dependence
  • Problem
  • Inappropriate

Use these words:

  • Alcohol, drug use disorder
  • Person with/who…
  • Treatment
  • Positive/negative test
  • Unhealthy
  • At-risk, risky, hazardous
  • Heavy use, episode

Saitz suggested another resource for journalists. They can sign up for a free subscription to Alcohol, Other Drugs, and Health: Current Evidence, a regular email newsletter that aggregates the latest research on alcohol, illicit drugs and addiction medicine.


This program is funded by American Society of Addiction Medicine. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

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