Is AA More Effective Than Other Recovery Options?

By Beth Leipholtz 03/07/18

Researchers examined popular alternatives to 12-step programs to determine if they were viable options for those in recovery. 

support group meeting

It’s long been said that there is more than one way to recover—and now a new study is backing up that statement.

The study, published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, discovered that three alternatives to 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous are equally as effective when it comes to treatment options. 

The three other programs the study examined were Women for Sobriety, SMART Recovery and LifeRing Secular Recovery.  

“This study suggests that these alternatives really are viable options for people who are looking for recovery support and don’t like AA for whatever reason,” lead author Sarah Zemore told Vox.

Conducted by the Alcohol Research Group in California, the study surveyed more than 600 people with alcohol use disorders. The participants were broken into groups depending on which support group they participated in. Researchers followed up with participants at six months, and again at 12 months, to measure involvement in the groups, as well as abstinence from drinking and alcohol-related issues. 

Overall, the study authors found that the three programs were as effective as 12-step groups.

“We were really interested in whether the effects of involvement on recovery outcomes depended on which group [participants] were in,” Zemore told Vox. “And we found that they did not.”

According to Vox, there were a few differences in the data collected. For example, people who used SMART Recovery as their primary support group seemed to have “worse substance use outcomes” and there were “lower odds of total abstinence” in those who relied on LifeRing.

However, this could have to do with the recovery goals each program emphasizes. Whereas AA focuses on total abstinence from alcohol, other groups are more open to members attempting to moderate their drinking. 

Zemore tells Vox that the data suggests that when researchers controlled for people’s recovery goals, the differences between programs went away.

“That suggests that people with less commitment to lifetime total abstinence are more likely to participate in SMART and LifeRing than they are to participate in 12-step groups,” she said. “That’s why you’re seeing these associations between SMART and LifeRing affiliation at baseline and worse recovery outcomes when you control for involvement.” 

There were some limitations to this study, John Kelly, an addiction researcher at Harvard Medical School, tells Vox. For example, the survey was conducted online rather than in a randomized trial. Additionally, it was only a single study. 

According to Zemore, this is just the beginning of deeper research into AA and 12-step programs. She feels there is more to learn when it comes to 12-step programs and their counterparts. 

“The benefits of 12-step groups are not driven by the 12 steps’ specific philosophy or adherence to the 12 steps,” she told Vox. “It’s really more about general mechanisms like abstinence motivation and social support for abstinence. Presumably, you could get those by participating in alternatives to AA.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.