Leaving “Drug Abuse” Behind: A Theoretical and Methodological Heuristic to Selecting “Problem Drug Use” or “Drug Misuse” as Alternative Terms

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Substance Use & Misuse

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Background: Historically, drug abuse described the negative consequences of drug use as a proxy measure of maladaptive behavior that manifests within the addiction process. Negative consequences can span multiple domains including physical (e.g., blacking out), psychological (e.g., mood shifts), interpersonal (e.g., relationship problems), social (e.g., drinking and driving), and economic (e.g., job loss) problems. Objective: In determining the appropriate terminology to describe the phenomenon under investigation, researchers should consider (1) the theoretical objective (i.e., substance use construct under investigation) and (2) the research methodology being employed. Results: Problem substance use is appropriate for describing the outcome of interest when conducting cross-sectional, or pre-post, designs where investigators are interested in a snapshot of problems associated with substance use behavior. Conversely, substance misuse reflects a pattern of negative consequences over time and is appropriate when conducting longitudinal research with three or more time points. Here, substance misuse captures a pattern of substance use problems over time that may be indicative of a substance use disorder. These terms should be distinguished from studies investigating the frequency (how often) and quantity (how much) of a substance is being used where risky substance use is appropriate for cross-sectional studies and heavy substance use is appropriate for longitudinal studies. Conclusion: This framework is intended to describe the phenomena being investigated (i.e., the variable) and not the person or people experiencing a substance use problem. We should continue the dialogue of semantics in science realizing that our choice of words has important “real world” ramifications for the populations we serve.


Substance Abuse and Addiction



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