Although AA’s emphasis on anonymity makes it difficult for outside researchers to determine its success rates, some have tried. What they have found doesn’t inspire much confidence in AA’s approach. A recent review by the Cochrane Library, a health-care research group, of studies on alcohol treatment conducted between 1966 and 2005 states its results plainly:
“No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or TSF [12-step facilitation] approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems.”
AA itself has released success rates at times, but these numbers are based only on voluntary self-reports by alcoholics who maintain their ties to AA — not exactly a representative sample.
Even taken at face value, the numbers are not impressive. In a 1990 summary of five membership surveys from 1977 through 1989, AA reported that 81 percent of alcoholics who began attending meetings stopped within one month. At any one time, only 5 percent of those still attending had been doing so for a year.
Many health conditions resolve themselves through what’s known as spontaneous remission — that is, they improve on their own. In the case of the common cold, for example, nearly everyone gets over the virus without medical intervention. In a 2005 article in the journal Addiction, Deborah A. Dawson and her colleagues calculated a natural recovery rate for alcoholism of 24.4% — that is, over the course of a year, 24.4% of the alcoholics studied simply wised up, got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and quit. Without treatment and without meetings.
When AA’s retention numbers are compared with alcoholism’s rate of spontaneous remission, they look even worse.
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