Kenneth Anderson, MA is the founder and CEO of The HAMS Harm Reduction Network and the author of a guidebook on harm reduction for alcohol.
1. People Are Just as Likely to Quit Drinking on Their Own as With a 12-Step Program Like AA
There have been exactly four scientific, controlled studies of the effectiveness of AA or 12-step treatment: Ditman (1967), Brandsma (1980), Vaillant (1995), and NLAES. The Ditman (1967) study compared drunk drivers who were court-ordered to attend AA with a control group of drunk drivers who were given no treatment at all.
There were no significant differences between the two groups in terms of re-arrest rate or any other variable studied. Brandsma (1980) compared the effect of 12-step inpatient treatment with psychotherapeutic treatments and an untreated control group. Because two-thirds of the patients in the 12-step group dropped out of treatment, it was impossible to compare this group in a meaningful fashion with the other groups.
Only one-third of the other groups dropped out. Vaillant (1995) did an 8-year follow-up study of 12-step-treated and untreated alcoholics and found no significant difference between the two groups—both the treated and the untreated groups had improved just as much.
And the NLAES (The National Longitudinal Alcoholism Epidemiological Survey)—a giant study conducted by the US government—actually found better outcomes among alcoholics who had never been treated than those who had undergone 12-step treatment (Peele, 2000).
2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Is About Twice as Successful as 12-Step Programs at Helping People to Quit Drinking.
As mentioned above, two-thirds of patients assigned to 12-step therapy dropped out of the Brandsma (1980) study. Only one-third of those assigned to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapy, or the control group dropped out.
Those treated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and those treated with Psychodynamic Therapy both did significantly better than the control group at improving their drinking—and the retention rate was twice as good as the 12-step group.
3. Calling Yourself an "Alcoholic" Is Harmful to Your Mental Health.
David Burns MD, a pioneer of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, tells us that labeling ourselves is bad for our mental health. An example of this sort of labeling is when you identify with your shortcomings. Instead of saying "I made a mistake" you tell yourself "I'm a nerd" or "a loser".
AA asks you to label yourself an "alcoholic" in order to disempower you as an individual and to empower the AA group instead. This is a classic tactic used by religious cults. Rather than label yourself an "alcoholic," it is much healthier to say that you are a strong and empowered person who does not need to drink.
4. AA Is a Religion by Definition.
AA often claims that it is "spiritual, not religious," however, AA has a divinely-inspired holy book (the Big Book), a congregation (AA members), and inviolable dogmas based on divine revelation but not supported by scientific evidence. AA meets all the criteria for defining a religion.
Moreover, 3 federal district courts have ruled that coerced participation in AA is a violation of the first amendment of the constitution because AA is a religion. These are: The Ninth Federal District Court (MT, ID, WA, OR, NV, CA, AZ, HI, AK, Inouye v. Kemna, No. 06-15474; Docket No. CV-04-00026-DAE), The Second Federal District Court (NY, VT, CT, Warner v. Orange County Department of Probation, Docket No. 95-7055), and The Seventh Federal District Court (WI, IN, IL, Kerr v. Farrey, No. 95-1843).
In point of fact, AA is a Calvinistic religion which teaches predestination. This is evident from the following AA slogans: "There are no coincidences in God's perfect world" and "No one walks into an AA meeting by accident." Moreover, AA believes in a God that created the 100% fatal disease of alcoholism and let everyone die from it until He decided to give the cure to Bill W. in 1935. This is not my kind of God.
5. Over 10 Billion Dollars Per Year Is Spent Promoting AA.
12-step treatment programs were invented by AA members for the purpose of promoting AA to a captive audience. The world's first 12-step treatment program was created in Ohio in 1940 through the collaboration of AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith and a Catholic nun named Sister Ignatia at St Thomas Hospital (Darrah, 2001).
Shortly thereafter, several AA members got together in Minnesota to found Hazelden treatment center in Minnesota (McElrath, 1987). Ninety-five percent of hospitals and treatment centers in the US use the 12-steps not because the 12 steps are effective at treating drinking problems, but rather because AA has been highly effective at doing PR to promote AA. AA member Marty Mann founded the National Council on Alcoholism in 1944 for the sole purpose of doing PR for AA; she was eventually fronted millions of dollars by AA member Brinkley Smithers for this purpose (Peele 1997).
According to Stanton Peele (1989) over ten billion dollars a year alone is spent on 12-step treatment programs in the US. Twelve-step treatment programs don't cure drunks but they do promote AA. This is not to mention the money spent by the National Council on Alcoholism and the fact that every TV show you see these days has an AA character in it. This is clearly a program of "promotion, not attraction."
6. Project MATCH Did Not Study AA.
Although the US government spent 35 million dollars on Project MATCH in an attempt to prove the effectiveness of AA, neither AA nor typical 12-step treatment programs were studied. Project MATCH invented something called Twelve Step Facilitation Therapy which involved one-on-one sessions with a professionally trained counselor and studied this instead of the AA or typically available forms of 12-step group therapy which had already been proved ineffective by the studies of Brandsma (1980) and Ditman (1967).
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Twelve Step Facilitation Therapy proved about as effective as Cognitive Behavioral Group Therapy--it is just far more expensive and unavailable at any treatment center that I am aware of. All twelve-step treatment centers that I am aware of use ineffective 12-step group therapy. Since treatment centers have no accountability if their clients die of drugs or alcohol after discharge, there is no financial motivation to use an effective form of therapy. 12-step treatment centers use the cheapest and least effective therapies possible in order to maximize the profit per client.
7. Many "Alcoholics" Eventually Become Moderate Drinkers.
According to Vaillant's (1995) study, about one-third of untreated alcoholics become moderate drinkers and about one-sixth of treated alcoholics become moderate drinkers:
8. There Is No Meaningful Definition of the Word "Alcoholic."
Science has abandoned the word "alcoholism." Today, the correct terms are Alcohol Dependence and Alcohol Abuse—which are two distinct and separate psychological conditions.
9. AA Has Not Been Updated Since Its Inception in 1935.
Science has discovered a million facts about alcohol problems since 1935, but AA's Big Book and its program remain unchanged. Would you wanted be treated by a doctor who used a 1935 textbook?
10. AA Founder Bill W. Demanded Whiskey on His Deathbed.
According to Susan Cheever's biography, Bill W. demanded whiskey on his deathbed and threatened to punch his nurse in the nose if she did not bring it to him.
11. AA Claims That It Is God.
AA slogans like "Make AA your higher power" and "G O D stands for Group Of Drunks" are frightening. They are even more frightening when you look at Step Three: "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him" and Step Eleven: "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out."
This is all about disempowering the individual in order to empower the group—the hallmark of a cult. Stop and ask yourself, "Did AA create the heavens and the earth?" AA is not God, no matter what it claims.
12. You Can't "Take What You Like and Leave the Rest" in AA.
When you go to your first meeting you will hear that the steps are "merely suggestions" and that you can "take what you like and leave the rest." But once you have been sucked in by declaring that you are powerless and decided to rely on AA as your higher power and the rest, you will soon hear that "This is like suggesting that you put on a parachute before you jump out of a plane." You will also hear what Bill W. wrote in the 12 by 12, "Unless each A.A. member follows to the best of his ability our suggested Twelve Steps to recovery, he almost certainly signs his own death warrant." Nothing in AA is optional.
If you like AA and find that it helps you, then fine, more power to you, keep on going. But if you don't find AA helpful, or if you find it to be harmful, then don't let anyone try to coerce you into going. There are better ways to deal with alcohol problems that have a better proven success rate. Hook up with a cognitive program like SMART if you want to quit, or use a harm reduction program like HAMS if quitting is not your goal. For full disclosure, the author of this article is the CEO and and founder of the HAMS Harm Reduction Network and the author of the book below.
- Brandsma, J.M., Maultsby, M.C., & Welsh, R.J.. (1980). Outpatient treatment of alcoholism: A review and comparative study. Baltimore: University Park Press.
- Burns D. (1999).The Feeling Good Handbook. Plume.
- Cheever S. (2004). My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson--His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Simon & Schuster.
- Darrah M. (2001).Sister Ignatia - Second Edition: Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous. Hazelden Publishing.
- Dawson, D. A. (1996). Correlates of past-year status among treated and untreated persons with former alcohol dependence: United States, 1992. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
- Ditman, K.S., Crawford, G.C., Forgy, E.W., Moskowitz, H., & MacAndrew, C. (1967). A controlled experiment on the use of court probation for drunk arrests. American Journal of Psychiatry, 124(2), 160-3.
- McElrath D. (1987). Hazelden: A Spiritual Odyssey. Hazelden.
- Peele S, Bufe C, Brodsky A. (2000). Resisting 12-Step Coercion: How to Fight Forced Participation in AA, NA, or 12-Step Treatment. See Sharp Press, Tucson, AZ.
- Peele S. (1989) .Diseasing of America: How We Allowed Recovery Zealots and the Treatment Industry to Convince Us We Are Out of Control. Lexington/Jossey-Bass.
- Peele S. (1997). R. Brinkley Smithers: The Financier of the Modern Alcoholism Movement
- Project MATCH Research Group. (1997). Matching alcoholism treatments to client heterogeneity: Project MATCH posttreatment drinking outcomes. Journal of Studies on Alcohol.
- Stinson, F.S., Yi, H., Grant, B.F., Chou, P., Dawson, D.A., & Pickering, R. (1998). Drinking in the United States: Main findings from the 1992 National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey (NLAES). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
- Vaillant, G.E. (1995). The natural history of alcoholism revisited. Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press.
- Wilson, W. (1939, 1976). Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
- Wilson, W. (1953). Twelve steps and twelve traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
How to Change Your Drinking
Audio: Addiction Treatments That Work
- Addiction Treatments That Work
This is a series of interviews with experts in the addictions field with a focus on evidence-based cutting-edge approaches to substance abuse problems such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, pharmacotherapy, harm reduction, and many many more.
Alternatives to AA
- HAMS--Alcohol Harm Reduction Support
The HAMS Harm Reduction Network provides information and support for people who wish to reduce the harm in their lives cause by the use of alcohol or drugs. HAMS neither encourages nor condemns alcohol use or alcohol intoxication.
- SMART Recovery | Self Help for Alcoholism & Addiction
SMART Recovery helps people recover from all types of addictive behaviors including alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addiction, food addiction, alcohol abuse and substance abuse.
- Welcome to Women For Sobriety, Inc.
Women For Sobriety, Inc. is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women overcome alcoholism and other addictions. It is, in fact, the first national self-help program for women alcoholics.
- LifeRing Secular Recover
LifeRing Secular Recovery is an abstinence-based, worldwide network of individuals seeking to live in recovery from addiction to alcohol or to other non-medically indicated drugs.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
B on June 13, 2020:
A.A works if you work it! If ur not alcoholic go and try some controlled drinking. See where you end up.
Bert on April 11, 2019:
Worked AA and i'm 33 years sober
Aa works, Bullshit , you have to work the program and hard work it is
with or without a invisible man in the sky
mikhailv67 on March 05, 2018:
The Christians that have added there critiques show me that my arguments against 12 step for being religious that religious people are the scourge of our society. Quoting the bible at AA to prove it the work of Satan shows what nutcases you people are. I don't like 12 steps cause the are in denial about the religiosity of their program and I don't likechristians because you people are are sick and hypocritical.
T on August 07, 2017:
AA works. Nothing culty about it. No one forces you to do anything. It's free. It's more like a community of people sharing their experiences about alcohol and it's damage to their lives. The 12 steps help to uncover the underlying problems that can cause the desire to drink. It has worked for me (1 year and 4 months sober) although I realize the success rate is pretty low, which is a pity. I respect your data Kenneth. I won't dispute any of it as AA is not the only path to recovery. God bless! ~T
André on March 27, 2016:
Well well well, I am sensing quit a humongous amount of frustration and emotional resentment in your article. You would change your mind if you could open it a bit and talk to old members of this association instead of relying on studies that contradicts the fact that alcoholism IS a sickness like diabet, for exemple. AA had been help by doctors ans scientist in its beginning. And the most important things, you'll never find in AA publications-documentation that it would own the truth about alcoholism. my name is André and I am an alcoholic. Thanks...
Anon on September 16, 2015:
These AA classes are a joke. I feel like (for the most part, the meetings I have attended-not making a blanket statement over every AA group) it's a bunch of ex-addicts and "dry" drunks sitting around smoking cigarettes and swapping war stories instead of saying hey let's get off government assistance and get a job and motivate ourselves instead of relying on a giant book of bullshit. Just my opinion though!
Dennis on August 26, 2015:
I found AA to be very destructive to the self worth to the individual.
It takes no responsibility for ham done to people in those rooms and loves to always blame the victim no matter what. I'ts ideology of powerlessness always and self-deprication is sick. Adding to the fact that
crimminals and low lifes of both sexes have been forced into those rooms makes for a very unsafe environment and gives you the feeling of being in a snake pit. I am a RECOVERED alcoholic despite the sickness of AA. I choose not to drink ON MY OWN and to those who prefer this distorted religious cult, all I can say is "better you than me".
C- on July 15, 2015:
Here's part 3 of 3 of my article:
Bible-believing individuals and churches desperately need to be made aware of the subtle and dangerous doctrines that A.A. teaches—doctrines that are diametrically opposed to the true Christian faith. Christians today should have the same concern for our churches (and for individual believers) that Paul had for the believers in the city of Corinth. He wrote (by the Holy Spirit), " . . . I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Jesus Christ. . . . Satan masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness" (2 Corinthians 11:3,14,15).
Because Satan is continuously prowling around "like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8), we must constantly keep our spiritual eyes open in order to be able to discern those people and programs that are masquerading as servants of righteousness.
Copyright © 1991, 1992, 1995, 2002, 2003, 2006 & 2007 by [Name Withheld]. Revised 4/28/02, 12/13/03, 10/22/06 and 2/16/07.
Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
C- on July 15, 2015:
Here's part 2 of 3 of my article:
Of course, Wilson believed that he was getting his "guidance" from "God," but it is obvious from the fact he and Bob Smith were heavily involved in occult activities that any supernatural guidance he was receiving was not from the Holy Spirit, but was rather from Satanic sources. Also, the description in Chapter 5 of ‘Pass It On’ of Bill Wilson’s "experience" with "God" sounds very similar to experiences related by people who are currently, or have previously been, involved in the occult.
If this man who founded A.A., and who wrote the Twelve Steps and two of A.A.’s "textbooks," was heavily involved in the occult, then why are Christians turning to his program for help with matters which are inherently and deeply spiritual in nature? And even if Bill Wilson had not been involved in the occult, the fact that he was not a true Christian should be reason enough in itself for Christians not to turn to him or his program for help with spiritual matters. (Remember, A.A. clearly describes itself as "a spiritual program.")
In 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 the Lord tells us through the Apostle Paul, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?" In James 4:4 we are taught, "You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God." And in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 God tells us, "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve."
God’s Word forbids Christians to go to the world and/or Satan for answers to spiritual matters, because the Bible is the one and only source that has the true answers to spiritual problems. In 2 Peter 1:2-3 God tells us through the Apostle Peter, "Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness." The Lord tells us through the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."
Alcohol abuse is inherently and predominantly a spiritual problem. God's Word, the Bible, calls alcohol abuse "drunkenness" (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)—which is sin—and gives all the answers for how to deal with it. Alcohol abuse is not an "allergy to alcohol" (another A.A. claim) or a "disease." Pneumonia is a disease, as is influenza, but alcohol abuse is not.
Ironically, in recent years even some secular scientists and other authorities have slowly begun to realize that alcohol abuse is not actually a disease. In the introduction to his book Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease (University of California Press, 1988), Herbert Fingarette, Ph.D., states the following: "Another book on alcoholism? Why? Oddly enough, and despite the many books on the topic, there is an important untold story: Almost everything that the American public believes to be the scientific truth about alcoholism is false. The facts are an open secret. That is, they are quite familiar to scientists and leading researchers in a variety of fields who read the major journals and books addressed to professionals. Indeed, the relevant scientific literature spans several decades of research that roundly contradicts popular beliefs and suggests an entirely new perspective on alcoholism and heavy drinking. And yet the public—including many counselors and para-professionals working in treatment centers—remains in the dark, still holding, and encouraged to hold, beliefs that are forty years out of date."