What is Addiction? Adiction & Substance Abuse Defined | CASAColumbia

What is Addiction

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Defining addiction changes everything

What is addiction?

Addiction is a complex disease, often chronic in nature, which affects the structure and function of the brain. It can be effectively prevented, treated and managed by medical and other health professionals.

Addiction prevalence

Addiction prevalence

40 million Americans ages 12 and older—or more than 1 in 7 people—have addiction involving nicotine, alcohol or other drugs. This is more than the number of Americans with heart conditions (27 million), diabetes (26 million) or cancer (19 million). 

Language of addiction


Why do the words used to describe addiction matter? People use many words interchangeably when talking about addiction, including experimentation, use, misuse, hazardous use, excessive use, abuse and dependence. There is a need for standardized terms in order to clearly diagnose and determine the severity of addiction and risky use the way we do for cancer. The lack of precise terminology can prevent an individual from receiving appropriate treatment or brief intervention.

The term “substance abuse” also reinforces a sense of stigma or shame suggesting that people with addiction should be able to simply stop using substances rather than acknowledging that addiction is a serious disease which makes stopping extremely difficult. The stigma surrounding the term “substance abuse” may prevent at-risk people from seeking and receiving help. 

For these reasons, CASAColumbia stopped using the word “abuse” in 2012 as it relates to substance use and addiction. However, some reports and publications published prior to 2012 still contain this outdated language. 


  • CASAColumbia. (2012). Addiction medicine: Closing the gap between science and practice.
  • Richter, L., & Foster, S. (2013). Effectively addressing addiction requires changing the language of addiction. Journal of Public Health Policy. 

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