We reject the language that keeps millions of Americans sick and in the shadows.

This damaging language fuels the stigma, shame and fear that keep 90 percent of those who need care from getting help. In keeping with our commitment to quality and science, we use language that is consistent with the language of science, medicine and other chronic diseases.

For the reasons described below, we choose to reject poor language and have chosen to replace it with language that:

  • Is based on the fact that addiction is a chronic disease.
  • Is firmly established in the fields of medicine and science.
  • Removes differences between the language of addiction and the language of other chronic diseases.
  • Promotes our Vision of a nation that has solved the disease of alcohol and other drug addiction.

Having said that, we will meet those who need help however we can. In other words, we will adjust to reach those who suffer from addiction. You may even see some of this “poisoned language” in our materials or website. Believe us, it isn't done without purpose and discussion. It’s done because we have a steadfast commitment to reach those who must be reached.

We're also firm believers in the power of stories and encouraging those who choose to tell theirs. We understand that some of these words may be important to emphasize a point or relay how someone felt during their addiction journey.

Words we don't like

  • Abuse(r) – This word fails the tests for many reasons: “(1) it negates the fact that (addiction) is a medical condition; (2) it blames the illness solely on the individual… ignoring environmental and genetic factors, as well as the (substance’s) abilities to change brain chemistry; (3) it absolves those selling and promoting addictive substances of any wrongdoing; and (4) it feeds into the stigma experienced not only by individuals with substance use disorders, but also by family members and the treatment/recovery field.” - Substance Use Disorders: A Guide to the Use of Language. William White – 2004.
  • Addict – This word fails the tests largely because it is not person-centered. It also carries its own fair share of baggage.
  • Any slang references to people (e.g., alcoholic, junkie, doper, drunk) – These words fail for what we think are clear reasons. And, the fact that many choose to apply such labels to themselves or others (perhaps as badges of honor) doesn’t change their hurtful nature.
  • Clean/dirty/sober – These words are of no medical or scientific use. They are focused only on drug use and increase society’s stigma about the disease.
  • Codependency – This is a term that's widely used in society, but has no one true scientific definition. It also shames and blames loved ones of those with addiction.
  • Dependency – This word, when applied to those suffering from addiction, fails the tests because it focuses on only one of the symptoms of this chronic disease.
  • Drug or alcohol problems – People suffering from addiction have many symptoms, only a fraction of which are directly related to drugs or alcohol.
  • Enabler – Loved ones of those with addiction are scared of this label, and it usually does more harm than good. In reality, there are both healthy and unhealthy forms of enabling. We need to stop blaming loved ones who are just doing their best to help. 
  • Habit – When used to describe the behavior of a person suffering from addiction, this word ignores science and minimizes its challenges.
  • Problem drinker – Like others on this list, this term isn't person-first and focuses on a problem and drug use only.
  • Rehab – The images behind rehab are largely due to the following:  
    • An endless parade of celebrities in and out of “rehab.”
    • Reality TV’s glamorization of “rehab.”
    • Society’s lack of trust in “rehab.”
  • Relapse – As with others on this list, relapse focuses solely on the substance. We prefer to use "recurrence of symptoms" when possible, but not at the expense of understanding.
  • Substance use disorder – We prefer addiction over substance use disorder for the following reasons:
    • It focuses on drug use.
    • It ignores the fact that addiction is a chronic disease.
    • It treats this disease different from other chronic diseases. We don’t call diabetes “nutrition and lifestyle disorder.” There are many diseases that are shaped by lifestyle, behaviors, the environment, genetics and a host of other things.
  • Tough love – Science and experience tell us tough love doesn't work. We need to stop using telling loved ones to cut the person with addiction out of their lives. Instead, let's focus on compassionate, caring methods that have been proven more effective.

Words we like


  • Addiction – Everything we are and do is focused on addiction, as defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
  • Addiction management – People with chronic diseases manage them every day.
  • Chronic disease – Addiction is a chronic disease, not a moral failing.
  • Disease management – A system of health care for those with chronic diseases.
  • People-centered words – We embrace people-centered descriptions of people and families who are struggling, those who are being treated and those who achieve wellness.
  • Remission – A state during which the symptoms of a disease have cleared.
  • Survivor – We believe this word is the generally accepted, people-centered word applied to people with chronic diseases.
  • Symptom-free – A point when patients no longer have symptoms.
  • Symptom recurrence – The return of a symptom.
  • Wellness – Wellness can mean something a little different to everyone. It includes physical, mental and spiritual well-being.