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Is There An AA Success Rate?

October 19th, 2010 – Posted by James W. West M.D. F.A.C.S. in Living Sober


Question:  What is the success rate of Alcoholics Anonymous?  I have never seen it published.

Answer:  Every few years Alcoholics Anonymous does a survey of its members.  In 1992, a random survey of 6,500 A.A. members in both the United States and Canada revealed that 35 percent were sober for more than five years; 34 percent were sober from between one and five years; and 31 percent were sober for less than one year.  The average time sobriety of members is more than five years.  According to A.A. World Services, the survey is designed to provide information to the professional community and the general public as part of its purpose to carry the message of recovery to those who still suffer from alcoholism.  For more information about Alcoholics Anonymous, write to A.A. World Services, Grand Central Station, Box 459, New York, NY 10163.

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  5. How can I start an AA group?


38 Responses to “Is there an AA success rate?”

  1. Joe D. says:

    AA tri-annual surveys are descriptive, not prescriptive in nature. They are merely snapshots in time of the composition of AA groups who participate in the survey, and in no way indicate a success rate for AA.

  2. Betty Ford Center says:

    Thank you for this clarification, Joe.

  3. Jonathan C says:

    Success rate misses the point. AA and related 12-step programs provide help. It’s up to the individual to do the work. Asking for AA’s success rate is like asking for Psychotherapy’s success rate. Like psychotherapy, there are wins and losses in AA, with a generally upward, positive trend. People do get better. Whether or not AA had something to do with it can only be answered by the individual.

  4. Betty Ford Center says:

    Very insightful – thank you.

  5. Max H says:

    Nearly 100 percent of Alcoholics and Addicts who get a sponsor, attend regular meetings, work the 12 Steps, and help others, stay sober.

  6. Cameron A says:

    “Nearly 100 percent of Alcoholics and Addicts who get a sponsor, attend regular meetings, work the 12 Steps, and help others, stay sober.”

    Not really.
    This is commonly said amongst AA goers and ESPECIALLY amongst people who KNOW someone who attends meetings and abstains from drinking. Naturally in these circumstances, from the inside of a meeting looking out (so to speak) it sure looks like a 100% success rate. But this is a foolish thing to just throw around. Even AA’s own bi-annual statement seems to hover around a questionable 5% success rate. While ignoring the fact that this is roughly the same percentage of people who flat out……DECIDE to stop drinking, just on their own. No disease, no 12 steps, no higher power, just quit hurting themselves of their own will (and common sense which, believe it or not, Alcoholics DO have, no matter what that book says).
    Sorry Max, but…….you’re wrong.

  7. Cameron A says:

    This statement of success also ignores other problems in the program such as HIGHEST RATE OF BINGE DRINKING RELAPSE OF ANY PROGRAM. This should be a big concern for anyone wanting to slow down, it may stop it for a while, but you have a higher chance of relapsing harder than before, not because of the nature of your disease, but because of the stress levels and attachment to your “birthday” and guilt issues stemming from a breakdown of your self respect. (meaning the self respect of the attendee)

  8. Ellen C. says:

    When I got out of the Betty Ford Center, they told me to go to 90 meetings in 90 days, to get a sponsor, stick with the women, to work the Steps with that sponsor, to get a service commitment, to read the book, and never drink or use, not even if my ass fell off.

    And if my ass fell off, pick it up take it to a meeting and the nice people sitting around that room would teach me a new way to sit. I did and I still do exactly as was suggested. I am free from all mind-altering substances. I even gave up cigarettes, and I’m working on sugar.

    I think the success rate of the 12 Step program depends solely on the participant’s diligence to the suggestions. Honesty, open-mindedness, willingness to do what is suggested. Without this, you are white knuckling it and it might be a matter of time before you fall into the non-successful bracket.

    As a side note, I have many friends with 20, 25 and 30 years of recovery. I am glad I took a chance that morning of May 21, 1993 and – as a joke – I called the Betty Ford Center, and – as a joke – they said we’ll see you tomorrow.

  9. Traci D. says:

    Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but that is a crock! The success rate is extremely low. In fact, AA has the opposite effect. Look it up! Go to the source.

  10. Louis says:

    When I reached my low point, If someone would have told me that barbequed baboon butt was a cure, I would have said bring it on. Whatever it takes. Screw the numbers, if it works for some people. First, do no harm.

  11. Brian says:

    Worked well for me over the last three years. A remarkable program for those willing to let go … listen and learn. A better way to live.

  12. Andy C says:

    My experience is that people who work the 12 Steps in their life on a daily basis stay sober, one day at a time, with the desire to drink, use or act out being removed on a temporary basis. We stay sober IF we remain in good Spiritual condition by following a few simple suggestions day to day.

    However, unfortunately, most people don’t do this, or if they do, they stop after a while thinking they can do it themselves. The graveyards the world over are full of people who thought they could do it without working the Steps…

  13. John says:

    I have been a sober member of AA for two years. My Mom was a sober member for 20-plus before her death. One of my close friends, who no longer actively participates, has been sober 6 years. No one knows our last names, has handed us a survey, taken any information of any kind. These so-called “statistics” cannot be valid in an anonymous program. People who want to be sober and commit to the way of life promoted by AA (you know, trusting God, cleaning up your mess and helping others) benefit from the program and often get and stay sober. We live in an era where anything with authentic spiritual power is attacked. The principles of AA are very old and were not invented in 1935. It has always been a minority of people who are willing to live according to the higher law. Those that do are more comfortable ultimately and have an easier time refraining from destructive behavior, like alcoholic drinking.

  14. Bob O. says:

    AA has a 0% success-rate above the 5% spontaneous-remission rate. Read

  15. Shashawna R. says:

    Thank you Ellen, Andy, John… The key here is WILLINGNESS! You HAVE to be WILLING to accept that you ars not the One who is in control, clean up the wreckage of your past (with others AS WELL AS YOURSELF), and help others. PERIOD. WILLINGNESS AND OPENMINDEDNESS.

  16. DKJ says:

    The comment from Any C reveals a problem.
    The official AA stance according to their book is that AA is not the only way. Andy C. indicates that it is either AA or death. AA works for some people and that is good.
    AA members that deny the possibility for an improved method are standing in the way of science. Bill Wilson continued to try other methods long after the founding of AA. At one point he was recommending high doses of Niacin and later he was promoting LSD (he later spoke against LSD.)
    AA has developed cult-like tendencies; they will circle the wagons at any sign of criticism.

  17. James W. says:

    I’ve been in AA for over 27 years and sober and an ATHEIST TO BOOT….but the success rate as Cameron A says is about 5% over the long run….I’ve seen many come and go…I think one of the reasons it has such a fail rate (I think its the only organization in the world with a constant 5% fail rate for 80 years that is still in business) is because BILL WILSON got sober with the help of a CHRISTIAN ORGANIZATION and he thinks GOD is what’s keeping him sober and so he made that a REQUIREMENT IN THE AA BOOK FOR STAYING SOBER…that is a misconception that over time fails everyone…the ones that do stay sober have much time invested and are just not interested in drinking again….GODS OVER TIME FAILS PEOPLE IN ALL ENDEAVORS…but it’s just in Alcoholics Anonymous that it’s obviously seen.

  18. Mikey J. says:

    AA provides a design for living rather than a cure from alcoholism. It only works on a small percentage of people because only a small number of people do what it takes to completely change their lives. Most go into the fellowship to stop the consequences of active alcoholism. They see alcohol as the problem not themselves. That’s the key. They have to do what the unsuccessful will not do. It’s a tall order but it certainly works if you really work at it. Most don’t.

  19. Betty Ford Center says:

    Good observation, Mikey, especially “They see alcohol as the problem, not themselves.” And the results are certainly ‘worth it if you work it.’

  20. John C says:

    I am sober in AA many years. Getting sober allowed me to work as a substance abuse counselor as a second job. I love it!! I truly believe in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps. I have no college degree, only experience. I use my experience to help others both in AA and in my professional role as a counselor in a locked unit with dual diagnosis patients.

    I tell the people I treat that AA works if you are “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and “ready to go to any lengths.” Don’t get caught up in the percentage game, as that will just give an Alcoholic an excuse to drink. It works if you work it!!

  21. Julian C says:

    I have been sober for 21 years. My recovery this time started in March 1989. Since then I drank for about 10 days with a new sobriety date of Jun 1, 1992. My opinion is this. Very few ever die sober. See an overwhelming change of faces. Very few are the same ones. And yes it works if you’re realistic, even with statistics. My opinion is about 3 to 5 percent.
    God Bless and good luck on your journey.

  22. Edward T. says:

    AA has turned themselves into a worldwide organization built with volunteers. That in itself speaks to its success rate. I think the individual success rate could vary greatly from one area to another. In my small town, AA meetings went from 1 a week to 7 days a week. I went to the first NA meetings here 25 years ago with a handful of people; I recently went to an NA cake night, and over 100 people were there.
    People have been criticizing 12 Step programs and will continue to, but they keep going. If you want to get clean and sober try it; if not, don’t. 12 Steps are not the only solution.
    I have 28 years sober, go to AA and would recomend you do everthing you can, in AA and outside of AA, to stay sober.

  23. Ed McG says:

    I have been sober for 39 years in AA. In the Big Book, the following is stated and read at the beginning of most meetings: “Rarely have we seen a person fail who thoroughly follows our path. Those who do not recover are people who will not or cannot give themselves to this simple program.” So the long and short is – AA works, 100% of the time! Its failures are the people who cannot grasp this very simple program. I have never seen anyone to dumb to get this simple program, but plenty too smart.

  24. Donna K E says:

    statistics mean nothing to me…all I know is that Ive been in the 12 step fellowships for 30 yrs..and continuously sober for 11…….its a “way of life” that works for me…that is all.

  25. Kitty P. says:

    I’m wondering about the statement that AA does not have a success rate in excess of the 5% spontaneous remission rate.
    In twenty five years as an A and D counselor and social scientist, I have never seen a convincing outcome study for any mode of treatment. Yes, often it is a requirement to measure outcomes. But what is measured? Continuous sobriety for one year, or at least willingness to claim it? Sobriety at an arbitrary point post treatment? Continued involvement with the treatment center? Criminal conviction rate? Rate of involvement with the police? Hospitalization rate? Physical survival? Family reunification?
    All these have been used as measures of outcome. And they are all indicators of treatment effectiveness. There is no doubt treatment works.
    But what is success? If someone dies, he stops getting drunk driving arrests. Is that a successful outcome?
    And what is sobriety? Abstention from alcohol? Abstention from illegal drugs? Abstention from mind-altering chemicals except those prescribed by a doctor [what doctor?] and those whose use is socially acceptable like caffeine [who decides that?]?
    And how do we define “alcoholics”?
    Manifestly, AA contains lots and lots of people who in the past felt they had a severe problem with drinking, and who stay sober, generally by the last-offered criteria. More than 2/3 of the members of any AA group has done so more than 5 years, and a third more than ten.
    AA has never claimed to be the only way. It is not difficult to find people who claim to have gotten past a drinking problem with another program, or none at all.
    The rule of thumb we used as counselors was “AA works best for most. And it does no harm. The chances of doing it on one’s own seem to be smaller.”
    No one can predict up front how anyone will react to AA. There really aren’t criteria for membership beyond a desire to stop drinking. I’ve had clients who absolutely refused to believe AA’s stance on spirituality, assuming that “as you understand him” meant all sorts of specific religious things; and others who just smiled and said “Oh, the God stuff’s no problem. As a research scientist, I have to recognize reality as a power greater than myself.”
    In any case, to measure success rate, there has to be a definition of the problem, the goal, and method of measuring. To compare success rates, these have to be the same for the different groups measured. No one has done anything like that. I wonder if it is even possible, given the protean nature of the difficulties we treat under the heading of “Substance abuse.” That is, if we come up with definition that will work now, day after tomorrow both drugs and social settings will have changed enough to make a mockery of our criteria.

  26. Brian B. says:

    I chair a meeting and go to them on a regular basis!
    First off, if you don’t count court cards, then the rate goes up , and if you only count the ones that give the program 100% of themselves, then the rate goes up, then if you only count the ones that have hit rock bottom, truly wanted help, and gave it 100% of their mind body and soul, then the program is probally a good 95% successful!
    If you don’t want to be on a diet, then you won’t lose weight, if you cheat, and don’t give it your all, you won’t lose weight! If someone wants you to lose weight, you might lose weight, but if you don’t want it and don’t give it your ALL, then you won’t lose much weight!
    If you give it your all, then you will get sober.

  27. Ron C. says:

    Another thing to consider. AA places just as much emphasis on converting to some form of Catholicism as it does anything else.
    WHO (World Health Organization) JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) and many other accredited organizations with “real” doctors and “real” studies go even further, ranking AA’s success rate at “below ZERO”, actually causing more problems than they solve. Citing that people recover at a 5% rate just by themselves anyway. A rate higher that AA, placing AA below ZERO. And, that 85% of all those who have recovered did it by themselves with no help from anyone.
    In short they noted the crushing consequence to a person’s self esteem when in the program that pressures them to convert to a form of Catholicism.

  28. Rod W. says:

    AA works for me. If you have a problem with alcohol, I hope you find a way out. Only the first Step mentions alcohol. AA is so much more than putting down the bottle. I can only speak for myself. I will not argue about any of it because I’ve come to a place where I don’t need to. Peace and Love.

  29. Jane K says:

    Catholicism? I’ve been in AA for 12 years and have never heard Catholicism mentioned. I can’t imagine how you came up with that!

  30. Paulette says:

    I thank AA for my recovery and for the skills and support they provide. But I agree that recovery has more to do with a willingness to change than the AA program. I attend one or two meetings every other year, and I’ve been sober for almost 10 years. I just don’t want to drink. I pour my husband bits of wine; smell it and it makes me sick. I hope I’ll never drink again, but who knows?

  31. Richard Z. says:

    I keep reading about this 5%- 10% success rate. I think any accurate rate of success can only crudely be estimated by either AA’s detractors or proponents. What do they base it on, how many 1 year chips are handed out? How does either group get its facts? Two, I was clean for 12 years using both AA and NA as I could never get into minute differences between the two groups. My relapse was based on depression and the Internet because IT informed me that the quality of heroin had risen substantially. Low methadone dosing and poor quality heroin were one of the major reasons I quit along with the death of my father, my enabler, who once dead, moved me to the front line of my own mortality. Also, I was nearly homeless. Yet I did realize I was spiritually bankrupt and I saw an ad in the paper for NA and I knew if I went, it would stop my using.
    Now 16 years or more into a relapse, I attend meetings and am met with much discrimination. I have developed legitimate pain and take opiates, but you should try and get a job with positive drops in this society. Not easy.
    Yet I have noted a new demon plaguing alcoholics and addicts, and it is this: the huge heroin epidemic in the US that AA’s refuse to address, the high relapse rate, and rash of suicides among people in AA. What is causing the latter? I am not sure. I certainly know that most of the people I got clean with in 1984 are still clean but many are not happy, joyous and free and only one has committed suicide. He was a good friend who – like myself -relapsed and could not get sober. We both had money. He from inheritance and I from saving, living frugally and trading wisely. It might sound silly to say my dog is one of the main reasons I don’t do myself in, but it is. She deserves better that being sent to a pro-kill shelter at age 15.
    Yet a week does not go by without my hearing that such and such hung himself or in some other way did himself in. Going to meetings and relapsing has turned a lot of AA’s against me. They may not shoot their wounded, but they sure beat the hell out of them! Yet finally I am legitimately prescribed morphine and Klonopin for pain and take it as ‘underprescribed’. I do not abuse it. Yet I slipped on heroin a few times and it is these secrets I keep to myself that cause my own self-loathing. Also, I had a lot of therapy with AA during my 12 years clean, and now I am dealing with a lot of ‘one-year wonders’ and people completely without a sense of boundaries. The way they act and talk to me and others gives new meaning to angry alcoholic.

  32. Scott says:

    AA affords one the opportunity to help others and grow spiritually via incorporating virtuous concepts into your life. The 12 Steps are a method of cleaning the wreckage from one’s past and discovering the root of the problem. The goal is not to quit drinking or drugging, it’s discovering why one drinks or using drugs in the first place. I discovered that I was basically living in fear of the world and people. The beauty of AA to me is the chance to get outside of myself and actually try to b me helpful to another human being. It’s the most loving organization that I have ever been a part of.

  33. Cherie C says:

    I am a member of AA and have been for over 24 years. The original question was “What is the success rate of AA?”. I believe that the surveys were mentioned. They were a questionaire sent out to members of AA through GSO and of the ones that answered the survey, they got the percentages. I have been very active in service work over the years and have done a lot of studying the program. Someone has already stated what I believe to be the truth. The success of the program can only be measured by the willingness of the member to do the simple steps on a daily basis. I know quite a few people with long term sobriety because they continue to trust God, clean house and help others. Very simple. There are other ways to get sober but none of them worked for me. I feel that if you don’t like what we have to offer, go find another way and stop trying to tear down AA. The real problem today is that the AA message has gotten very watered down by people not sharing the 12 Steps in meetings and not using our book which is our text book, NOT A NOVEL. Relapse happens when we stop doing the daily things the keep us spiritually fit. When I start believing I have this disease licked, I start heading for the relapse, which starts in my mind long before I pick up a drink or a drug. I don’t spend my time fretting about statistics because as long as I am practicing the principles in ALL my affairs, I am sure I will stay sober and live fairly happy for the rest of my life one day at a time!!

  34. Betty Ford Center says:

    Thank you, Cherie, for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. We appreciate you sharing your wisdom about the value of the 12 Steps.

  35. Betty Ford Center says:

    Thanks for re-emphasizing the importance of a 12 Step program in recovery, Scott. The program truly is so much more than just “putting the plug in the jug” – it’s a whole new way of life.

  36. Ed says:

    Success rates vary – 40% of members have less than a year sobriety. 20% have less than 5 years. 20% have more than ten years. 15% have more than 20 years. 5% have more than 35 years.
    I thank whatever Higher Power made me the percent I am.
    All numbers are winners, because as time goes by, you just fall into your percentage slot. just do it!

  37. Mark H says:

    I have 27 years sober in AA. Only two percentages count for me: 0 or 100.

  38. Karen says:

    AA gives you very valuable tools and a support group of people with whom you share a common goal, that being, is to get and remain sober. It’s a matter of whether or not you choose to work the program. It requires work and determination. It’s not a magical cure. Your success requires determination and a willingness. I love AA. In the two years that I’ve been in the program, I have made many positive changes in my life and I credit AA and my willingness.

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