Science is Finally Supporting Alcoholics Anonymous

A new study published by the Cochrane Library scientifically proves that Alcoholics Anonymous' (AA) and 12-step programs are effective in treating alcohol use disorder.

The study partially funded by the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, led by John F. Kelly of Harvard University, co-authored by Keith Humphreys of Stanford University and Marica Ferri of European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon, Portugal, found that AA is effective in keeping people sober and reducing the amount people drink.

Researchers found that "clinically delivered [12-step facilitation (TSF)] interventions designed to increase AA participation usually lead to better outcomes over the subsequent months to years in terms of producing higher rates of continuous abstinence." The study also found AA's lack of dues and fees helped reduce health care costs.

"Alcohol use disorder is the most common addiction problem in the United States; 75 percent of addiction cases are alcohol-use disorder. It's by far the biggest public health problem, in terms of drug use disorders," Kelly told Newsweek. "AA is the most commonly sought source of help for alcohol problems, except that we didn't really have a good estimate of its effectiveness, despite its popularity. What we wanted to do was really subject AA and 12 step treatment to the same scientific standards that we would any other kind of intervention."

Alcoholics Anonymous celebrates its 75th anniversary. Also known as AA it was founded by Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith in June 1935 in Akron Ohio. Scientists found AA to be effective in treating alcohol-use disorder. John van Hasselt/Getty

Humphreys explained to Newsweek that despite being the most popular method for getting sober, the lack of scientific research on it since the group's inception in 1935 left room for doubt. "For many decades, there really weren't evaluations one way or the other, and as a result, people are understandably skeptical of it, if it hasn't been evaluated," he told Newsweek.

As AA is notoriously private, making it difficult to study. Kelly explained that 12-step facilitation procedures are used to link patients up with AA. "There are specific procedures and strategies for linking patients to AA, called 12-step facilitation procedures, and these can be studied using randomized control trials. So, we can actually randomize patients in a proper experimental fashion in the same ways you would any other treatment for any other disease and deliver a treatment and compare that treatment to something else, like a cognitive behavior treatment or some other kind of psycho-social treatment and follow people up over time," he said. Humphreys explained some of the different ways people do this. Sometimes people with alcohol problems are followed. Some researchers will recommend some people in treatment to the group. Some people were followed up after leaving detox centers and learning what they did.

Kelly and Humphreys cite the fellowship aspect of AA as part of the reason why it's been so effective. "If you think about AA, it's actually an indigenous, ubiquitous community of recovery support resource that can be attended for the long term. So, when you're treating a chronic illness, it's important to link patients into something that can support their ongoing recovery," Kelly said. He also explained AA's similarities to other therapeutic tools that formal treatment provides like social network changes, behavioral and cognitive coping skills, boosting confidence, and reducing craving and impulsivity.

"Another part is hope and inspiration," Humphreys said. "You see people who are further down the track. They were where you were, and now they're doing really well; and that makes you think, Oh jeez, I could do the same thing that they could."

Despite AA's effectiveness, the program doesn't work for everyone who gives it a try. Both Kelly and Humphreys said that for those who don't find sobriety in the program, there are alternatives, including other mutual health groups like LifeRing, medication, psychotherapy and residential care. "If AA's not enough or if AA's just doesn't fit for you, I hope the person would then try one of those other options," Humphreys said.