AA Attendance Lower Among African American, Hispanic and Young Populations

"No alcoholic beverages" sign

Alcoholics Anonymous has long been a cornerstone of treating alcohol use disorders in the United States. But even today, Americans are not accessing it equally, according to a new study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Yet few studies have looked at whether Americans are actually using Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, and similar "mutual-help groups" equally. The new findings, published in the January issue of JSAD, show they are not — and those disparities are just as clear today as 20 years ago.

Researchers found that between 2000 and 2020, Black and Hispanic/Latinx Americans with an alcohol use disorder were about 40% less likely to have ever attended AA meetings versus their White counterparts.

An even greater divide was seen between people younger than 30 and relatively older adults: Among adults younger than 30, less than 5% had ever attended AA — versus about 12% of adults age 30 and up.

"This is concerning because the disparities suggest that these groups — Black, Latinx and emerging adults — are not receiving optimal care," said lead researcher Sarah Zemore, Ph.D., a senior scientist with the Alcohol Research Group, in Emeryville, Calif.

"It's known that mutual-help groups can be quite effective in initiating and sustaining recovery," Zemore said.

Why then do disparities in AA participation exist? According to Zemore, there may be something about AA that is "not attractive" to young adults and people of color.

Some past studies have suggested as much, the researchers point out: People of color attending 12-step meetings have, for instance, reported conflicts with the program's general philosophy, as well as feelings of being scrutinized or discriminated against. Young adults, meanwhile, may often be turned off by the meetings' religious nature.

The current findings are based on data from the National Alcohol Survey, which collects information on Americans' drinking habits at roughly five-year intervals. The researchers focused on nearly 8,900 Americans who were surveyed between 2000 and 2020 and who reported ever having at least 2 of 11 symptoms used to diagnose an alcohol use disorder.

Gaps in AA attendance among people of color and young people were not explained by factors such as the severity of people's alcohol-related problems or whether they had received specialty treatment. When the researchers accounted for those factors, Black adults, Hispanic/Latinx adults and young adults were still less likely to have attended AA.

Over the years, AA has evolved, now offering meetings in different languages and specifically for people of color and women, for instance. Based on the new findings, though, disparities in attendance have not narrowed since 2000.

"This problem probably isn't going to be solved by AA alone," Zemore said.

The key ingredient in AA and similar programs, she noted, seems to be the change in people's "social networks." That is, they offer a ready-made way to be around others who are working toward recovery.

Source: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

About Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (www.jsad.com) is published by the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. It is the oldest substance-related journal published in the United States.

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