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Addict is a dirty word

April 24, 2015
by Julie Miller, Editor in Chief
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Substance use disorder is often compared to diabetes, in that it’s a chronic condition. It’s also compared to cancer, in that it’s a deadly condition. However, when politicians, the public and even health leaders talk about SUD, the language they use is quite different than how they talk about diabetes or cancer.

For example, no one reduces the population of people with cancer into a ridiculous moniker by saying,  “the cancerites” or “the cancerans” or any other label. It would make them sound like Martians from a bad 1960s sci-fi movie. They are people, and they have a cancer diagnosis.

Obviously, the same isn’t true for people with SUD. They are unmercifully referred to as “addicts.” That default language implies a diminishment of their humanity, even though they are scared and in pain just as someone with cancer would be.

Drug czar’s swear jar

National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli is working on an official glossary of language to replace the stigmatizing, offensive words that are used in discussions about substance use disorder, according to an article in the Huffington Post. Botticelli—in recovery for 25 years now himself—says it’s not about political correctness, but rather it’s about reducing prejudice and lack of empathy.

Instead of “addict,” for example, the forthcoming glossary will recommend “person with a substance use disorder.” My personal favorite on the list is replacing “reformed addict” with “person in recovery.” How I bristle at the word "reformed."

You probably have your own list of dirty words in your head or possibly even in your employee handbook. Do you share it? Do your state representatives have a copy? 

Consider printing up that list in the form of inexpensive business cards that you can carry in your pocket to hand out on the fly. Think of the tone you would set at your next community meeting if you handed out the cards before the discussion even began. You would start with an agenda of respect for your patients and your profession.

While Botticelli will drive the improvement in word choice among federal agencies and folks in his circle of influence, your influence can be far greater. Go on and spend the 10 bucks on a box of business cards. The return on investment will be immeasureable.



Julie Miller

Editor in Chief

Julie Miller


Julie Miller has more than 14 years of experience observing, analyzing and reporting on various...

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