How Abstinence Became the AA Standard for Success

Two experts in our film Wasted likely have more knowledge and wisdom about Alcoholics Anonymous than anyone else in the world. They set the record straight on key beliefs about AA. Here’s Dr. Keith Humphreys on how total abstinence became the AA measure of success.


Dr. Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Mental Health Policy in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He is also a Senior Research Career Scientist at the VA Health Services Research Center in Palo Alto and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London. His research addresses the prevention and treatment of addictive disorders, the formation of public policy and the extent to which subjects in medical research differ from patients seen in everyday clinical practice. For his work in the multinational humanitarian effort to rebuild the psychiatric care system of Iraq and in the national redesign of the VA health system’s mental health services for Iraq war veterans, he won the 2009 American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Public Interest. He and the authors of “Drug Policy and the Public Good” won the 2010 British Medical Association’s Award for Public Health Book of the Year. During the Obama Administration, he spent a sabbatical year as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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Bill Matthews

Hello. Are you saying that AA now accepts people who are able to become and remain moderate drinkers or occasional drinkers but would like support to do that? Are we considered dangerous to total abstineers?


No, AA is for those who feel they must abstain. AA is an abstinence-only program. What Dr. Keith Humphreys said, is that the founders of AA recognized that there are indeed some fellows who could “learn to drink like gents” again, but those fellows were not for whom the AA program was established. – Maureen


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