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The Worldwide Impact of Alcoholics Anonymous

Posted in Abused Drugs

Alcoholics Anonymous, informally known as AA, is nearing its 75th anniversary, and the self-help organization has established an international reputation since its founding in 1935. The organization is recognized around the world in medical and scientific communities, among recovering addicts of all kinds, and in popular culture. Although the organization has faced questions and criticism over the years surrounding its effectiveness and inclusiveness, the tremendous cultural impact of Alcoholics Anonymous cannot be overlooked.

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith in the town of Akron, Ohio. The now-famous 12 Step program was developed by Wilson and Smith with contributions from their early members. Those steps were first officially published in 1939 in the book Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism, now commonly referred to as "The Big Book."

Alcoholics Anonymous Grows and Diversifies

In its first few years, the group formed by Wilson and Smith was attended by only Protestant men. By 1939, AA had its first female member and its first non-Protestant, and had acquired its official name with the publishing of "The Big Book."

Wilson, a former alcoholic, originally achieved sobriety with the help of a non-denomination Christian organization known as the Oxford Group. Wilson eventually split from the organization to found the independent group that became AA. Although spirituality was an important element in Wilson’s own journey to sobriety and in the creation of the 12 Steps, AA now declares itself to be unaffiliated with any "sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution".

The text of "The Big Book" has been translated into 28 languages and published across the globe. AA currently has groups in over 84 countries around the world, and over two million members in the United States and overseas. Demographic data is somewhat limited – largely due to AA’s commitment to protecting the privacy of its members – but a 2004 survey of Canadian and American members showed that around 65 percent were male and 35 percent female.

The Proliferation of 12 Step Programs

One of the most significant effects of the rise of AA has been its influence on individuals and groups seeking to overcome many other kinds of addictions and behaviors. Many support groups inspired by AA have adopted the name "Anonymous," while many others have adopted a revised version of the original 12 Steps.

As of 1997, there were 258 self-help fellowships around the world that used "Anonymous" as part of their name. Whether or not these groups resemble AA in any other respect, the "Anonymous" in their names is all anyone needs to hear in order to know that the purpose of the groups is to give members assistance recovering from an addiction or behavior.

There are also more than 94 fellowships in existence that use a verified modification of AA’s 12 Step recovery program. The largest and most well-recognized of these groups is Narcotics Anonymous, which was officially founded in 1953. The founders of Narcotics Anonymous had largely used AA for their recovery, and recognized the need for a group that was specific to drug addicts.

As of 2004, surveys estimated the membership of the largest non-AA 12 Step recovery fellowships – Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Heroin Anonymous, and Double Trouble in Recovery – to be over 215,000 individuals.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Other Institutions

AA is well-established in the prison system throughout the United States and Canada. The central management of AA has published material specific to alcoholics in prison, and also provides advice and assistance to inmates who want to form a meeting at their institution.

In the past, individuals who were arrested and convicted on alcohol-related charges could be ordered to attend AA meetings as part of their sentencing. However, in 1996 mandatory AA attendance was ruled unconstitutional because of the religious elements in the 12 Step program. Nevertheless, individuals who are ordered to seek treatment may still opt for AA meetings.

Alcoholics Anonymous in Popular Culture

AA has become so well known that it has been featured in many television or film plotlines, and received many more minor references. Some of the most well-known movies and shows that have featured AA include Days of Wine and Roses, The Simpsons Movie, "Desperate Housewives," "The West Wing," and "South Park."