How effective is A.A.?

According to one report, 5 of 100 alcoholics are still sober one year after their first A.A. meeting. The most under reported lifestyle story might be that the majority of American alcoholics who make successful recoveries – 60% – do it outside of A.A. But with over 2 million + members, doesn’t A.A. have a good thing going? What do you think? Are these statistics bunk? Do they prove anything?

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I’ve recently been sifting through statistics from university research from PubMed (a public database of biomedical research) about the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous.  This is in an effort to both GET HONEST about recovery techniques and to air out some of the misconceptions I have of the organization.  What I have found is that a great deal of controversy exists on the subject.  And to quote A.A.:

A.A. is not aligned with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes.

Problems exist intrinsically by trying to evaluate A.A.  As early as 1976 researchers noted the difficulty in scientifically tracking effectiveness and critiqued the over-simplification of cross-sectional or longitudinal studies as measures of 12 step effectiveness.  (British Journal of Psychiatry ).   Another problem that exists in trying to predict and measure outcome behaviors of alcoholism treatment is that A.A. does not exist in a vacuum but is used as a modern form of treatment in combination with other interventions. Medication, psychiatric counseling and out-patient addiction treatment to name a few.

But a recent 2006 study has keenly summarized he current situation: after 70+ years since the birth of the organization, we still DON’T KNOW how effective A.A. is.   The Italian Agency of Public Health reviewed eight clinical trials for alcoholism involving over 3000 participants and found that, “No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or Twelve Step Facilitation approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems” (Cochrane Review on Alcoholics Anonymous effectiveness); this leaves little hope of a clear picture.  Unless A.A. is ready to take its own inventory…and let the world know about it.

What is bothersome to me is not so much the lack of data on A.A., but A.A.’s disinterest in the topic.  I get the sense that the General Service Office wouldn’t touch the issue with a ten foot pole.  But as a professional marketer, I must object.  This does a great disservice to potential members.  Instead of offering facts, the organization offers promises.  Without vital information, new members go on faith alone…and the example of a handful of successful candidates who MIGHT represent 1-2-3% of those who attempt the program.  Who really knows?

This is on par with any religion.

But even without scientific statistics, A.A. members co-exist in a space of steady growth.  And who am I to say what will work for a loose body of people who come together whose primary purpose it to stay sober?  What do you think?  Should A.A. take stock?  Would this do more harm than good?  Does it really matter what a person’s statistical chances are in 100 of staying sober?  And even if it doesn’t matter, wouldn’t you like to know?

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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