The UK Media's Shameful Stigmatization of Heroin Users

Oh how we should rejoice at the UK government's groundbreaking move to allow foil to be legally provided as drug paraphernalia for heroin users. Such courage it must have taken to come to a decision that is so momentous as to change the very face of harm reduction in this country.

Of course, I'm being facetious. This is not to detract away from the importance of the move -- for one, helping to steer heroin use away from injecting to smoking will help combat the transmission of deadly diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV -- but more to highlight the fact that such a basic measure should have been taken long ago; the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) raised the idea back in 2010 for goodness' sake!

The move has gained some traction in the UK press, with The Independent boldly declaring: "Providing foil for addicts will help the fight against heroin." Media coverage of drug policy and harm reduction advances is almost always welcome here, particularly as the government is largely intent on refusing to make truly meaningful adjustments to the country's punitive drug laws. However, when it comes to coverage of heroin, the UK media seems stuck in linguistic habits that ensure problematic use continues to be stigmatized by society at large.

Scanning through online newspapers for write ups of the foil initiative, it's jarring to see the words "junkies" and "addict" bandied around as if this is an acceptable representation of people who use heroin. The Daily Mail and Daily Mirror -- hardly known for their empathy, admittedly -- really lead the way here. "Heroin junkies to be given foil on the State," reads the Mail's headline, one oozing with a level of moral outrage that only the Mail truly knows how to muster. The Mirror is slightly less direct, though utilizes the term twice toward the end of its article. Even The Independent, who took a more progressive line on the subject, sadly fell into using this terminology.

This is by no means restricted to print journalism, either. In his radio broadcast following news of the measure, Jon Gaunt liberally threw around the term "smack head" in front of his guest, Release's head of legal services, Kirstie Douse. If I were as inclined to hurl pejoratives at people, I may have a few aimed at Jon Gaunt. I like to think I have a little more gravitas than that, though.

Some may think: "What's the harm in a label? What damage could it possibly cause?" The media is an incredibly powerful voice in helping shape people's attitudes. By continuing to deploy phrases such as the aforementioned, they are propagating a view that people suffering from problematic heroin use are a lower-class citizen, one that must be kept at arm's length. Ultimately, it dehumanizes them.

Not only does this stigmatization quell any public empathy toward the issue, it is detrimental to people who use heroin problematically seeking treatment. In a 2012 report by the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) and the Society of Editors, titled Dealing with the Stigma of Drugs: A Guide for Journalists, it was noted how "negative connotations attached to the word 'junkie' made it more difficult to encourage addicts to join rehabilitation programmes." Indeed, why would people who have been discriminated against so heavily by the mainstream media feel that they would receive fair judgement upon submitting themselves to treatment?

The British media would do well to take note of recent events in Australia. Following the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this year, the Sydney Daily Telegraph ran the tasteless headline: “Kids grieve for junkie actor dad.” The headline was removed within an hour of publication, but the damage had been done, and on August 7, Australia's Press Council ruled that their Standards of Practice had been breached by the article, deeming the use of the term "junkie" to be "highly unfair and offensive." It's sad that no such step seems likely to be taken in the UK.

Through its continual demonization of problematic heroin use, elements of the British media reveal their complete misunderstanding of the issue and are complicit in dangerously marginalizing this group from the rest of society. This needs to change, but given how ingrained this ignorance has become, it is difficult to see how it will.