Confronting Inadvertent Stigma & Pejorative Language in Addiction Scholarship

A Recognition and Response

Language frames how society thinks about substance use and recovery.

In fact, appropriate use of language in the field of addiction is crucial since inappropriate use of language can negatively impact those who are affected by substance use.

Language also frames how individuals think about themselves and their ability to change.

Negative or inappropriate language intentionally and unintentionally propagate stigma, which is harmful, distressing and marginalizing to those who bear it, regardless of whether the stigma is based on fear and exclusion, authoritarianism, or even kindly intentions. Slang and idioms are often rich in metaphors and symbolism; however, they can also contribute to stigma because of their implicit moral or negative tone.


Broyles and colleagues make an appeal for the use of language that will follow these rules:

  1. Respect the worth and dignity of all persons,
  2. Focuses on the medical nature of substance use disorders and treatment,
  3. Promotes the recovery process, and,
  4. Avoids perpetuating negative stereotype biases through the use of slang and idioms.


The authors believe that supporting person-first language, e.g. “person with an addiction” or “adolescent with a substance use disorder” is vital to respecting the value and dignity of those with substance use disorders, stressing that a move away from negative language towards more positive language, will only aid individuals in their recovery. Additionally, presenting addiction and its treatment through a medical lens will help to draw attention to the growing base of evidence-based treatment options and services available to support recovery. Recovery-oriented language refocuses the lens from disease or moral pathology  to one of resilience and healing, and changes the focus from singular acute treatment to more continuous long-term strategies of recovery. A continued dialogue with individuals and families who are affected by substance use is necessary for sustained change.


Language is powerful and can affect people in ways that we cannot always predict or anticipate.  The authors challenge readers not to underestimate the importance of using language and terminology that gives dignity and respect to those suffering from substance use disorders.


Broyles, L. M., Binswanger, I. A., Jenkins, J. A., Finnell, D. S., Faseru, B., Cavaiola, A., … & Gordon, A. J. (2014). Confronting inadvertent stigma and pejorative language in addiction scholarship: a recognition and response.