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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Alcoholism: AA Best; Experts Unsure Why

Support From Alcoholics Anonymous Members Works Best
WebMD Health News

April 25, 2003 -- Nothing helps an alcoholic quit drinking better than support from an AA member, experts say. But they aren't sure exactly why.

Alcoholics Anonymous uses the now famous 12-step program to help people stop drinking. Among its core features:

  • Invoking the aid of a higher power
  • A personal relationship with an AA member who acts as a sponsor
  • The telling of personal stories

What, exactly, makes it work? That's the topic of a collection of reports in the March issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

One hint comes from a study by Lee Ann Kaskutas, DrPH, and colleagues at the Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley, Calif. They found that alcoholics who got support from AA members were three times more likely to stay on the wagon as those who got no support.

But alcoholics who got similar support from people outside AA were no more likely to stay dry than those who got no support.

"This suggests that AA members offer types of social support that differ from those typically offered by nonmembers," Kaskutas notes in her report.

Spirituality is a major part of AA. Attending AA meetings -- up to a certain level -- is linked to staying sober. Yet University of New Mexico researcher J. Scott Tonigan, PhD, finds that those who endorse spirituality most strongly are not more likely to remain abstinent than others.

"We still have a poor understanding of what AA-exposed individuals actually do and how prescribed AA-related practices may mobilize and sustain behavior change," Tonigan says in a news release.

The experts may be stumped, but AA members aren't. They vote with their feet. Most of the AA members in the studies -- even those who received other forms of therapy for alcoholism -- still attended AA meetings and read AA literature for at least three years after their first treatment for alcoholism.

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