CBC: Why small changes to the language around addiction are so enormously important

Dr. Laura MacKinnon

The way we speak to and about people who use drugs makes a difference in their outcomes, says Dr. Laura MacKinnon. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

This column is an opinion by Dr. Laura MacKinnon, a primary care physician working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and in Northern B.C., and a research fellow with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use

One of my patients recently refused to go to the hospital for a life-threatening infection, stating “I don’t want to go to [this hospital] because they treat me like I’m just an addict there.”

She is a loving mother of four and proud grandparent of three. She is a resilient survivor of intimate physical violence, and currently employed as a peer support worker, helping others in her community prioritize their mental and physical health. And she developed an opioid use disorder after she suffered an accident and was prescribed opioids for chronic pain.

I’m a family doctor who works primarily in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a vibrant neighbourhood that is notorious for high rates of poverty, drug use, and mental illness. And I’ve learned that language carries a lot of weight.

My favourite poster in our clinic space reads, “Label jars not people.” I love this poster, because it highlights the importance of language.

A poster in the Vancouver clinic where Dr. Laura MacKinnon works reminds people of the power of words and the stigma that labels can create. (Dr. Laura MacKinnon)


The word addict is ubiquitous in our society. It can be used to describe our strong inclinations or repeated actions of devotion to anything, from working out and social media, to pizza and coffee. Additionally, it’s used for behaviours that are detrimental to a person’s wellbeing, such as gambling. And to describe a person who has a tolerance to and dependency on substances such as drugs or alcohol.

The way we speak to and about people who use drugs makes a difference in their outcomes, because language perpetuates stigma. And the word “addict” can be highly stigmatizing for people who are struggling with substance use.

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The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the FASD Prevention Conversation Project, its stakeholders or funders.

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