Language Matters

The use of inappropriate language and words can be a barrier to access to medicines for the legitimate use of opioids, such as treatment of pain and opioid dependence. Referring to a person as a “substance abuser” or an “addict” rather than “a person with substance use disorder” evokes stigma and there is evidence that it reduces patients’ access to appropriate treatment.

Everyone should use appropriate terminology, including patients, health professionals, governments, academia and civil society. The media, and scientific journals have a particular responsibility to communicate clearly in ways that help and not harm patients.

Six medical organizations, including IAHPC, called in April 2017 to ensure that language in medical publications and policy documents is always neutral, precise and respectful (“NPR”).

This section includes the original call, an article by board members of the six organisations which makes it easier to bring using NPR terminology into practice and a number of links to other articles, videos and resources that provide guidance on the appropriate use of terminology.

The content of this section is generously provided by Dr. Willem Scholten, PharmD MPA, who is a global advocate for access to opioids for legitimate needs and the elimination of barriers that interfere with this access.

If you wish to suggest any additional resources to add to this page, please send an email to


The call and how to operationalize this
The language doctors and medical journals use to describe dependence has a real effect on patients
BMJ Opinion – April 2017
By Scholten Willem, Simon Olivier, Maremmani Icro, Radbruch Lukas, Well Chris.

Access to treatment with controlled medicines rationale and recommendations for neutral, precise, and respectful language.
Public Health – October 2017
By Scholten Willem, Simon Olivier, Maremmani Icro, Wells Chris, Kelly John F, Hämmig Robert, Radbruch Lukas.
(This article can be downloaded free of charge until February 6th, 2018. Thereafter please access it through your institution’s library, or, if not possible, request a free reprint by sending a direct message to twitter account [at]WKScholten).

Terminology – Key presentation (video)
Societal Impact of Pain (SIP) Conference – June 2017
by Willem Scholten

Six medical organizations call for appropriate terminology - Continous presentation (pptx)
Continuous powerpoint presentation (runs automatically), e.g. for use at conferences in booths or during breaks

Other resources

Revising the language of addiction
Harvard Gazette - August 2017
By Colleen Walsh

The language doctors and medical journals use to describe dependence has a real effect on patients
IAHPC Newsletter – May 2017
by Willem Scholten

Language, Substance Use Disorders, and Policy: The Need to Reach Consensus on an “Addiction-ary”
Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly – January 2016
By John F. Kelly, Richard Saitz, Sarah Wakeman

Identification of Challenges to the Availability and Accessibility of Opioids in Twelve European Countries: Conclusions from Two ATOME Six-Country Workshops
Journal of Palliative Medicine – December 205
By Linge-Dahl Lisa, Vranken Marjolein, Juenger Saskia, North Kate, Scholten Willem, Payne Sheila, and Radbruch Lukas.

Barriers to access to opioid medicines for patients with opioid dependence: a review of legislation and regulations in eleven central and eastern European countries
Addiction - February 2017
By Marjolein J. M. Vranken, Aukje K. Mantel-Teeuwisse, Saskia Jünger, Lukas Radbruch, Willem Scholten, John A. Lisman, Marija Subataite, Marie-Hélène D. B. Schutjens

Changing the Language of Addiction
The USA White House – January 2017

Why we should say someone is a 'person with an addiction,' not an addict
National Public Radio – June 2017
by Maia Szalavitz

Make your words support your message
Journal of Pain & Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy – Dec 2014
By Willem Scholten