Moving Away from the Terms “Alcoholic” and “Alcoholism”

Although the terms alcoholic and alcoholism are often used in discussions about heavy drinking, the science community has been moving away from these terms for years now.

There are two primary reasons to use more nuanced terms:

  1. Alcohol problems are not a “yes” or “no” issue. You don’t need to be at “rock-bottom” to experience alcohol problems and want to change. It’s important to remember that drinking problems can exist at any point on a scale between “none” and “severe.” Once someone recognizes drinking is causing problems in their lives, the decision to change may come easier.
  2. The term “Alcoholic” carries lots of cultural baggage and stigma. Historically substance misuse has been treated as a moral failing rather than a serious mental health condition. Thinking about yourself or a loved one as an “alcoholic” is a limiting and pejorative approach that often downplays the fact that unhealthy alcohol use and alcohol use disorder are health conditions that can be resolved.

So what words should you use?

The more appropriate and clinically accepted term is unhealthy alcohol use. Instead of asking whether they’re an alcoholic, people should ask themselves to what extent their drinking is causing problems.

What Is Unhealthy Alcohol Use?

“Unhealthy alcohol use” is a technical term that includes “at-risk alcohol use,” which, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), is more than 4 standard drinks per occasion or 14 drinks per week for men, and 3 drinks per occasion or 7 drinks per week for women. At higher levels of drinking and problems, unhealthy alcohol use can become an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). AUD is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5thedition (DSM-5) and can range from mild to severe. More on the criteria for AUD can be found here.

And clinicians no longer talk about alcoholics or addicts. The appropriate words are “a person with an alcohol use disorder” or “a person with a drug use disorder.”

Please note that these are clinical standards. If your drinking does not meet these definitions, but you believe you have unhealthy habits, we urge you to consider changing your drinking.

Click here to learn how SMART Recovery can help with unhealthy alcohol use.

How to Learn if Your Drinking is Unhealthy

The fastest way to self-screen for the risk of drinking problems is to answer CheckUp & Choices’ free ten-question screening. The screening is called the AUDIT (The Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test); it has been developed by the World Health Organization. The AUDIT can give you objective feedback about your risk for, or level of, alcohol problems, and the need for a more in-depth assessment.

Use this helpful CheckUp & Choices quiz to gauge your drinking and any problems.

How Your Score is Helpful

Measuring your drinking against a clinically valid standard like the AUDIT takes the guess work out of evaluating your drinking. For individuals who drink moderately, a low score can ease anxiety around drinking and improve confidence around what it means to enjoy alcohol in moderation. Conversely, higher AUDIT scores and the associated feedback can prompt a person to consider changing. In either case, it’s better to know your risk than to remain in the dark.

Concerned About Your Loved One? Recommend the Screening

Broaching the subject of drinking with a loved one can be a difficult conversation. Life is full of positive and negative memories, events, and traditions that can trigger someone in your life to drink more heavily. Because of this, it can be hard to know if someone is just drinking heavily at one or two events, or if he or she is engaging more generally in unhealthy drinking.

Suggesting that a friend or family member takes a screening can be a great way to begin the conversation. Just do it when he or she is sober. Mentioning that you and other friends or family members have taken it may also make it easier for the person you’re concerned about to take it. The screening is anonymous, confidential, and evidence-based, which further removes the judgement from any conversation that might occur.

Click here to take the CheckUp & Choices quiz.

About CheckUp & Choices

CheckUp & Choices is a confidential, self-guided, online program that is clinically proven to help SMART Recovery participants. The “CheckUp” includes a comprehensive alcohol self-assessment. The “Choices” programs include 12+ weeks of ongoing motivational exercises, drink, mood and urge trackers, guided emails and change plans. With Checkup & Choices, you are never labeled and you will be treated with respect and without judgment. Get started with CheckUp & Choices today.

About SMART Recovery

Founded in 1994, SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) uses science-based techniques that have proven to be effective in helping people recover from addiction problems involving any substance or behavior, including such things as alcohol, drugs, gambling, over-eating, shopping and internet use.

Each week, many thousands of people discuss recovery progress and challenges at more than 3,000 in-person meetings each week in 23 countries, daily online meetings and 24/7/365 internet message board forums and chat rooms.

Participants use SMART to assume responsibility for their own recovery and become empowered using its 4-Point Program®: building motivation; coping with urges; managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors; and living a balanced life.

For more information, please visit

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