When it comes to people with addictions, words matter: experts

Words like addict, junkie and drug abuser should be replaced with more respectful terms that do not stigmatize and isolate people struggling with substance disorders, says the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

“With the opioid crisis, terms used like addict and user are not about the people as people. They are the condition,” said Dr. Jane Buxton, the harm-reduction lead at the centre.

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“This can be negative and stigmatizing, leading people to hide their drug use or not ask for help — which is very dangerous. As we know, people using alone can potentially die.”

Buxton and her colleagues are mounting a campaign to change the language used to put people first and emphasize the problem as a medical issue rather than a moral or criminal one.

Some of the suggestions are using terms such as “person with a cocaine-use disorder” instead of “cocaine user” or “addict.” Others include referring to a person having an “addictive disease” or “substance-use disorder” rather saying they are a drug “abuser” or “junkie.”

Buxton said the change might seem awkward at first, but makes more sense than stigmatizing people with labels. “A person who has cancer is not referred to as cancer,” she said.

The overdose crisis in B.C. killed more than 922 people in 2016, and another 117 in January. More than 171 people have died on Vancouver Island since the beginning of 2016.

According to the coroner’s service, the majority of those deaths took place inside a residence. The powerful opioids fentanyl and carfentanil were found in most cases.

Shannon Marshall from Island Health said the health authority is part of the provincial overdose prevention anti-stigma subgroup.

“We work at all levels of our organization to ensure a ‘person-first approach.’ ”

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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