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.

This section includes links to 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


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

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

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

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