Alcoholics Anonymous and its related groups for other substances are undeniably the de facto standard for addiction treatment. The AA meeting is so prevalent throughout society that it has become a cliché in cinema and television. To many, it seems like the only solution.
Pacific Standard recently ran a piece with the headline “After 75 Years of Alcoholics Anonymous, It’s Time to Admit We Have a Problem.” According to the article, “90 percent of American addiction treatment programs employed the 12-step approach” by the year 2000." The article argues that although it is the dominant form of addiction treatment, Alcoholic’s Anonymous’ religious-based, 12-step approach might not be the best option.
In his new anti-AA book Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America's Greatest Tragedy, former director of Harvard's substance abuse treatment unit Dr. Lance Dodes writes the following: “Alcoholic’s Anonymous was proclaimed the correct treatment for alcoholism over seventy-five years ago despite the absence of any scientific evidence of the approach’s efficacy. And we have been on the wrong path ever since.”
In fact, several alternatives to AA do exist. HAMS, for instance, is a harm reduction program that encourages addicts to complete small, realistic goals such as slowly reducing alcohol or drug use. There is also the Secular Organizations for Sobriety, a method that emphasizes participants need not submit to a higher power as AA requires them to do. There are many other addiction recovery options.
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None of these options, however, have taken over AA’s spot as the most prominent pathway to ending addiction. The difficulty in establishing an effective treatment program is that many of the programs require mental and behavioral therapy rather than medical treatment. SMART Recovery, the first result returned on Google after a search for “alternatives to Alcoholic’s Anonymous,” refers to addiction as a “bad habit” rather than a disease, emphasizing the “motivation” to quit.
The ways in which American society treats nicotine addiction has always differed from the ways in which it treats alcohol and other drugs. There are nicotine patches, gum, and now electronic cigarettes that purport to lead to smoking cessation. Medication in the form of a pill even exists. Varenicline, most commonly known as the brand Chantix, reduces an individual’s urge to smoke and even causes cigarettes to taste worse.
There are also pharmaceutical drugs on the market that help reduce the urge to drink alcohol or other drugs (methadone being a common example for use in drug detoxification). But, of course, using medication to curb the problem is simply introducing a to which an addict’s body and mind becomes accustomed.
As Pacific Standard notes, addiction is a multifactorial disease about which we still know extremely little. Treatment programs such as AA might be beneficial to a certain degree, but it’s time to increase the collective effort to discover better treatment options.