As a journalist, I am familiar with the way word choice can serve to shape perception. For example, my favorite euphemistic turn of phrase came from a conference speaker in the hospitality industry many years ago who kept referring to “home meal replacement.” I eventually caught on and realized he was talking about fast food. Groan!
I’m sure you groaned at the recent report from the Washington Post, in which an analyst said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was forbidden from using certain words, such as “transgender” and “science-based.” As it turns out, it was just a poor interpretation by the analyst of a misguided idea to woo budget hawks, but it had me thinking.
There are words that addiction professionals agree should be banned from the lexicon of healthcare stakeholders. What’s more, the Associated Press—a leader in setting standards for reporters—just this year has started advising against journalists choosing words like “addict” and “user.”
In light of the CDC uproar, we have a renewed opportunity to again advocate for a ban on stigmatizing words.
You’ll recall that back in January, just as the Obama administration was packing up, the then-director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Michael Botticelli, issued a memo to federal department leaders asking them to choose their words carefully in discussions around addiction. Botticelli suggested that phrases such as “person with a substance use disorder” and “person in recovery” would be preferred. Botticelli cited evidence that the negative words affect quality of care.
Time for federal advocacy
But it’s a new administration now. Knowing that the opioid crisis is undoubtedly the most nonpartisan issue in the country, someone at the federal level needs to reinvigorate the discussion about word choice.
Richard Baum, ONDCP acting director, would be wise to advocate for this campaign. Alex Azar, the nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, might get out in front of this one and speak up proactively. Jerome Adams, the new surgeon general—whose brother had a history of addiction and is now serving time in a state prison—certainly would be a strong voice here.
Perhaps Kellyanne Conway—considering her role as the ear of the president in the White House commission meetings on the opioid crisis—could be the one to promote similar language guides. SAMHSA has a role to play, too.
Regardless, as behavioral health thought leaders who are increasingly involved in federal policy discussions, you have an opportunity to keep shining a light on the words we use when we talk about people with substance use disorders and solutions to the opioid crisis. This obviously isn’t a new idea, but it also shouldn’t be neglected out of fatigue.