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Language matters: reduce stigma, combat overdose

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​Vancouver – The BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) encourages the use of respectful, non-stigmatizing language when describing substance use disorders, addiction and people who use drugs.

“Negative, stigmatizing language, whether it is used in a healthcare setting or in the news media, discredits people who use drugs and can result in discrimination,” said Dr. Jane Buxton, harm reduction lead at the BCCDC. “Stigmatization contributes to isolation and means people will be less likely to access services. This has a direct, detrimental impact on the health of people who use drugs.”

In a report now available on, Dr. Jane Buxton and researcher Hiep Tu describe the stigmatizing language sometimes used in public and professional discourse, and the impact it can have on people who use drugs.

Respectful Language and Stigma Regarding People Who Use Substances is available online.

Drawing on previous research into language used to describe addiction*, Buxton and the BCCDC encourage stakeholders to help change the conversation regarding overdose.

  1. People-first language. This means referring to a person before describing his or her behaviour or condition. This is important because it acknowledges that a person’s condition, illness or behaviour is not that person’s defining characteristic.  “Person with a cocaine-use disorder” instead of “cocaine user” or “addict.”
  2. Use language that reflects the medical nature of substance use disorders. There are a multitude of factors contributing to drug addiction, ranging from personal factors to social, environmental and political ones. Avoid terms that reinforce a belief that addiction is a failure of morals or personality, rather than a medical issue.  “Addictive disease” and “substance use disorder” instead of “abuser” or “junkie.”
  3. Use language that promotes recovery. This means healthcare professionals should use language that conveys optimism and supports recovery, and respects the person’s autonomy.  “Opted not to” and “not in agreement with the treatment plan” instead of “unmotivated” or “non-compliant.”
  4. Avoid slang and idioms. Slang terms and idioms have negative connotations and a significant level of stigma attached to them. While slang and idioms are rarely used in professional literature, they are also important to avoid when speaking to other colleagues or healthcare professionals.  “Positive” or “negative” when referring to drug tests, instead of “dirty” or “clean.
Learn more about the overdose crisis in BC:
*Adapted from Broyles L, Binswanger I, Jenkins J, Finnell D, Faseru B, Cavaiola A et al. Confronting Inadvertent Stigma and Pejorative Language in Addiction Scholarship: A Recognition and Response. Substance Abuse. 2014;35(3):217-221.

The BC Centre for Disease Control, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority, provides public health leadership through surveillance, detection, treatment, prevention and consultation services. The Centre provides diagnostic and treatment services for people with diseases of public health importance, and analytical and policy support to all levels of government and health authorities. The BCCDC also provides health promotion and prevention services to reduce the burden of chronic disease and preventable injury. For more, visit  or follow us on Twitter @CDCofBC.

The Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) plans, manages and evaluates selected specialty and province-wide health care services across BC, working with the five geographic health authorities to deliver province-wide solutions that improve the health of British Columbians. For more information, visit or follow us on Twitter @PHSAofBC.


Media Contact:
Ben Hadaway
Communications Officer
604-707-2412 or PHSA media line:
778. 867.7472
overdose; harm reduction
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