Updated: Jan 14
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has been around since 1935 but despite its long-standing presence around the world, many people wonder if it’s actually an effective way to get sober and stay sober. Although the success rate for AA has long been debated, there studies that show it can be a very effective recovery tool for many people who are recovering from addiction.
What is AA?
AA is an international fellowship that was founded by two men known as “Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob S.” in 1935. It is a fellowship that is made up of men and women who are recovering from an alcohol abuse problem. Members do not have to be a certain age or hold a certain level of education to join. Instead, membership is open to any and all people who want to get sober.1
Not even a full decade after it was formed, AA had spread out all over the United States and Canada with more than 6,000 members. It has only continued to grow since then. As of January 1, 2018, AA estimates that there are 61,904 AA groups in the U.S. totaling 1,297,396 active members. In Canada, there are an estimated 4,956 AA groups totaling 84,558 members, and worldwide, there are an estimated 120,300 AA groups and 2,087,840 members.
The process of AA primarily revolves around meeting attendance. AA members regularly meet in groups to help one another get sober and maintain their abstinence from alcohol. The basic principles of the fellowship are outlined in the 12 Steps listed in the “Big Book,” which is AA’s literature. Also commonly known as the “12-Step Programme,” these 12 steps provide a framework for self-examination and a guide for living a lifestyle of sobriety.
Sponsorship is also an important part of the programme, with senior members taking new members under their wing to provide sobriety support on a more personal level. In short, the AA programme is designed to help people of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities to overcome their addictions.
Measuring the Success of AA
The success rate of AA is a difficult thing to measure, as the fellowship is meant to be anonymous and AA’s own reports may be affected by various factors. Additionally, how do we define “success”? Is it the number of members who have not relapsed? What about those that have relapsed but returned to AA to continue working toward sustained sobriety?
Defining and measuring the success of AA is tricky, especially since the membership numbers are constantly changing. For starters, the Big Book claims AA has about a 50 percent success rate, with another 25 percent staying sober after relapsing once or several times. AA’s 2014 Membership Survey also provides the following statistics about the fellowship:
27 percent of AA members stay sober for less than a year.
24 percent of AA members stay sober between one and 5 years.
13 percent of AA members stay sober between 5 and 10 years.
14 percent of AA members stay sober between 10 and 20 years.
22 percent of AA members stay sober 20 or more years.
The average length of AA member sobriety is nearly 10 years.4
However, despite this survey’s findings, some critics argue the success rate is only between 5 and 10 percent.5
Other studies have also been completed to investigate the success rate of AA. One such study took a look at the long-term sustained sobriety of individuals who had received formal treatment, attended AA, or had not received any treatment at all. Overall, the study found:
After three years, half of the AA members were still sober and 0.25 percent of those who enrolled in formal treatment were still sober.
After 8 years, 49 percent of AA members were still sober and 46 percent of people who enrolled in formal treatment were still sober.6
This study clearly shows AA can be very effective for some people who are seeking long-term recovery from addiction.
3 Important Factors that Influence the AA Success Rate
Just like any other measurement of success, there are certain factors that come into play. Regarding the AA success rate, here are a few of the main factors that will influence whether an individual may achieve sobriety success through the programme.
1.Lack of or presence of formal addiction treatment: In addition to AA participation, whether or not a person has also received some type of formal treatment may have an impact on their success in AA. For example, a person who attends AA and is also enrolled in a sober living programme will have more sobriety support than someone who attends AA but lives at home with family members who abuse alcohol.
2.AA programme adherence: Whether or not a person adheres to the 12-Step Programme will also impact their results. Someone can be a dry drunk and an AA member without ever actually experiencing the personal and spiritual transformation that AA is designed to produce. Getting positive results from AA will require hard work, perseverance, and daily dedication to the program.
3.AA attendance: Since a major part of AA is attending group meetings on a regular basis, individuals who do not attend one or more meetings every week may not benefit from the programme, whereas someone who attends two AA meetings each week is much more likely to achieve lasting success in sobriety.
The Role of AA in Addiction Recovery
According to the 2014 AA Membership Survey, 59 percent of AA members received some type of treatment or counseling related to their drinking and 74 percent said it played an important part in directing them to AA.4
Additionally, after coming to AA, 58 percent of members received some type of treatment or counseling and 84 percent said it played an important part in their recovery from alcoholism.4
The most important thing to take from these statistics is that the 12-Step Programme can play a vital role in the addiction recovery process, but people in recovery may have a better chance at achieving sustained sobriety if they also enroll in a formal addiction treatment program.
At The Bridge Foundation, attending 12-step meetings is an important part of the recovery programme. Studies show that it is just as effective as other treatment approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational enhancement therapy,8 and it provides more opportunities for sober living residents to get connected with their sober peers.
Establishing a stable and firm foundation in recovery is an essential part of maintaining long-term sobriety and AA can help people in recovery do that. As a programme that focuses on improving character deficits in addition to problem drinking, the 12-Step Programme also helps sober individuals develop productive habits, life skills, and maintain a healthy mindset in recovery.
Some people may steer clear of AA due to its spiritual nature, however, the 12-Step Programme can be adapted to suit individuals of all religious and non-religious beliefs and one can choose anything (not just the Christian God) to become their “higher power” in recovery.