William & Mary Law Review


Jurists frequently consider the extent to which a writer’s or speaker’s harmful statements may be actionable under the law. But what should be done when the law itself contains harmful language? Consider the case of individuals with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Hundreds of federal and state statutes refer to these individuals as “addicts,” “abusers,” “alcoholics,” “drunkards,” “inebriates,” and “intemperates.” These statutes exist notwithstanding research showing that these words provoke negative thinking by others, including thinking that individuals with AUD are more deserving of punishment and less deserving of treatment. These laws persist in the face of research showing that these words increase the affected individual’s sense of shame and anxiety and decrease the individual’s likelihood of seeking and remaining in treatment. These laws remain on the books despite research and case law showing that these words reinforce structural, public, and self-stigma associated with AUD. Inspired by the Author’s former clients, many of whom had substance use disorders, this Article develops an original, alcohol-related language taxonomy that challenges the continued use of injurious statutory language. If enacted, the proposals set forth in this Article will bridge the fields of law and medicine and reduce the stigma associated with mental health conditions.