Actor Charlie Sheen’s recent rants included several tirades against the 12-step program popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous. He called it a “bootleg cult” and claimed it had only a 5 percent success rate.
Does the massively popular program really do that bad a job at combating alcohol abuse? Definitive statistics are scarce. In a 2007 AA membership survey, 33 percent said they’d been consistently sober for more than 10 years, 12 percent for five to 10 years, 24 percent for one to five years and 31 percent for less than one year. However, the survey doesn’t reveal the total number of years the members had been in the program. Addiction specialists cite numbers closer to 8 to 12 percent for sobriety by members after the first year, but even Dr. Drew Pinsky of Celebrity Rehab acknowledged that Sheen’s statement had some cred. “He’s got a point,” Pinsky told TMZ. “Their success rates aren’t that great. But the fact is, it does work when people do it.” A Cochrane Review that combined studies looking at AA and other 12-step programs found they weren’t any more effective in decreasing alcohol abuse than other treatments, although researchers found limitations with some of the studies. Some research presents a rosier picture. A 2007 study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research reported that those in 12-step treatment programs had a 49.5 percent abstinence rate after one year, compared with 37 percent for those in cognitive behavioral therapy programs. Many people pair 12-step meetings with in- or out-patient treatment programs, cognitive behavioral therapy and medications that help the body cope with withdrawal. Numbers aside, addiction specialists were quick to praise AA. They say the organization has many benefits — and that addiction in general is extremely hard to treat. “If it was such a dismal program,” says Dr. Karen Miotto, medical director of the UCLA Addiction Medicine Service and an addiction psychiatrist, “it would be hard to understand why millions of people around the world are involved with it.” Dr. David Sack, chief executive of Promises Treatment Centers and an addiction psychiatrist, said that AA’s success rates may not be what the group wants to emphasize: “AA is a self-help support group, it wasn’t designed as a treatment,” he says. “One of the core features of AA is getting a sponsor, a peer who has had more time in recovery and can teach you about the AA approach to addiction,” Sacks says. “In studies that have looked at AA, having a sponsor significantly improves the likelihood of long-term abstinence.” Another core value is service to others, something that helps people reclaim their self-esteem, he says. “Addicts often feel sub-human, and this helps them restore their sense of self-worth and become part of the human family through that process.”UCLA’s Miotto isn’t worried that Sheen’s widely publicized rants will deter people from going to an AA meeting. “The more people talk about addiction and ask questions about what [AA] is and how it works, the better,” she says. “Sometimes having adverse role models can bring attention to the matter.“And maybe three years from now he’ll be the poster boy for 12-step programs. There have certainly been other actors who have been portrayed as bad boys who are active now in recovery programs.”