Why Words About Addiction Matter

hands in the center

It's a common nursery school rhyme—"sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." We all know the follow up, which we undoubtedly heard from an adult in our life: "except we do know that words can hurt." That's because words matter— especially when it comes to addiction.

Words like "addict" or "abuser" not only perpetuate the stigma that those struggling with substance use disorder (SUD) have some sort of control over the disease, but it can also affect the type of care they receive from their provider. Prior studies have shown that doctors were more likely to assign blame to the individual when referred to as a "substance abuser" versus a "person with substance use disorder."

It's time to end the cycle. That's why BMC instituted a hospital-wide language pledge around addiction. It calls on employees to be a model for others in the health care field by using language that de-stigmatizes the disease. The pledge provides information for all staff about the importance of word choice when interacting with patients and their families. It's using words like "addiction" and "person in recovery" and getting rid of stigmatizing language like "drug habit" or "clean." We invite others to join us by signing their own pledge. If you do, or if you have questions about the pledge, please contact us.

While these word changes might seem minor, they can make a world of difference in lives of millions of people struggling with addiction.

Read about how a graduate student in the BU School of Social Work is applying this work. 

Approximately one in 12 people with SUDs get treatment and stigma is most often the primary reason why people don't seek out treatment. It's time to remove this barrier, and by taking this step as an organization, BMC hopes to bring addiction out of the shadows and get more people the treatment and services they so desperately need.

Download the Words Matter pledge to stop the stigma associated with addiction.

Non-Stigmatizing Language

Stigmatizing Language

  • Person with a substance use disorder
  • Substance abuser or drug abuser
  • Alcoholic
  • Addict
  • User
  • Abuser
  • Drunk
  • Junkie
  • Babies born with an opioid dependency
  • Addicted babies/born addicted
  • Substance use disorder or addiction
  • Use, misuse
  • Risky, unhealthy, or heavy use
  • Drug habit
  • Abuse
  • Problem
  • Person in recovery
  • Abstinent
  • Not drinking or taking drugs
  • Clean
  • Treatment or medication for addiction
  • Medication for Opioid Use Disorder/Medication for Alcohol Use Disorder 
  • Positive, negative (toxicology screen results)
  • Substitution or replacement therapy
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment
  • Clean, dirty


Glossary for Culture Transformation

Listen to the Airing Addiction podcast