SMART Language Guide for Working with the Media

Words really matter. The words we choose can include and exclude the people around us. This short guide is here to help you work with words to describe SMART and SMART participants in ways that empower and make change easier, while limiting shame, and reducing stigma and discrimination.


At SMART Recovery, Australia, we believe that self-management is achieved most easily when the words we choose are label free (labels are for jars, not people). If we go with the most generous words we can find, we confer a sense of hope and possibility. People who are willing to commit to change deserve enormous respect. Our words reflect our commitment to supporting change and acknowledging the tenacity and effort involved.


We’d like you to know that SMART Recovery Australia:

  • is guided by the belief that alcohol and other drugs related harm should be treated as a health issue and not a criminal or moral issue
  • works with the research evidence that shows that either abstinence OR reduced use of substances can lead to significant health and wellbeing benefits
  • includes stakeholders who have used alcohol or other drugs in the past and/or currently use them
  • does not condemn nor condone the use of alcohol or other drugs
  • supports participants to realise their aspirations, meet their needs and participate fully in society
  • supports freedom of choice
  • enables participants to self-manage and control their own behaviour (choice might well result in abstinence, but it need not)
  • supports participants to minimise the harms associated with their alcohol and drug use
  • is committed to advancing the health and wellbeing of people with behaviours of concern, by creating a mutual-aid context in which participants are empowered to realise their aspirations, meet their needs and participate fully in society.


When in doubt, we suggest that you choose to go with language that:

  • puts the person first
  • is strengths-focussed (recognises abilities and positive qualities and skills, not limitations or deficits)
  • is harm-reducing (make it a heath matter, not a moral, social or legal issue)
  • is empowering, optimistic and hopeful
  • is trauma-informed
  • is stigma-reducing
  • is discrimination-reducing, i.e. helps remove barriers and obstacles
  • is respectful
  • is compassionate
  • is morally neutral, for example, resumed, or experienced a recurrence of symptoms
  • is medically accurate
  • avoids slang and idioms, such as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’
  • is culturally competent
  • depicts people as whole people, who are always so much more than just their issues of concern around substances or behaviours.


Here are some specific tips to help you choose words that include all of us in the conversation:

  • Always put the person first – for example, person/people who use substances, person/people with an issue of concern
  • People with issues/behaviours of concern in relation to substance use may experience health issues, but these are not moral problems. Recognising this distinction is important
  • Avoid labels such as ‘substance abuser’ ‘addict,’ ‘alcoholic’ (labels just make us all more stuck and less able to change. Labels belong on jars, not people). Use person with an issue of concern/ person who uses drugs
  • Avoid using ‘abuse’ or ‘abuser’ altogether, for example, person with an eating disorder, rather than ‘food abuser’
  • Avoid labels such as ‘substance dependence’ or ‘addiction.’ Neither term is necessarily useful. If including this information doesn’t add meaning, then why mention it at all? ‘Person with a lived experience of substance use’ might cover what you need to say.
  • ‘dependence’ and ‘addiction’ are not the same thing (dependence may not involve negative consequences or be an issue of concern, while addiction involves persistent compulsive use. For example, babies exposed to opioids in the womb may suffer withdrawal symptoms from dependence after they are born, but they are not addicted)
  • issues of concern can always be worked through. It’s the behaviour, NOT the person that needs to change
  • Discuss use (not misuse), with an appropriate modifier, such as risky, heavy, or unhealthy
  • Describe pharmacotherapy accurately, as a form of treatment.
  • SMART participants are precisely that, ‘participants’. They are not ‘patients’ or ‘clients.’


When in doubt about which words to choose when working with the media, you can always contact a member of the SMART Recovery Australia team for assistance.


Also see the NADA Language Matters Guide below. 


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Feel free to share this page with the media representative you are working with.

Thanks for your dedication and enthusiasm for SMART! We really appreciate your support.