New study shows how effective Alcoholics Anonymous really is


The well-known program that seeks to help people with alcohol use disorder, Alcoholics Anonymous, has long been criticized for not having the medical research to back up its efficacy.

Until now.

A new study published by the medical journal Cochrane Database of Systematic Review found the peer-led program not only helps people get sober, but it also has higher rates of continuous sobriety compared with professional mental health therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

The study is important because it dispels misinformation about the program, said lead author Dr. John Kelly, a professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“In the popular press, there’s been reports of AA not working or being even harmful for people,” he said. “So, we wanted to clarify the scientific picture to the highest scientific standard.”

The study had the opposite findings of a similar study published by Cochrane in 2006 that found “no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or TSF (twelve-step facilitation) approaches for reducing alcohol dependence of problems.”

The 2006 review included eight trials with about 3,400 people, while the new review included 27 studies of more than 10,500 people.

The studies reviewed for Wednesday’s publication rated AA’s effectiveness by measuring factors including the length of time participants abstained from alcohol, the amount they reduced their drinking, if they continued drinking, the consequences of their drinking and their health care costs.

AA was never found less effective and was often significantly better than other interventions or quitting cold turkey. One study found the program 60% more effective than alternatives.

Lisa Smith, a recovery advocate who chronicled her addiction and recovery from alcoholism and cocaine in the book “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” said the study “provides important confirmation to what I have seen throughout my 15 years of sobriety in AA.”

“Anyone struggling with their drinking can walk into a meeting full of people who’ve been there and are ready offer support,” said Smith, an attorney.