The Difference Between AA and SMART recovery

September 17th, 2019

When discussing recovery programs, one program with a familiar acronym generally comes to mind. Appearing across popular culture, AA, or Alcoholics Anonymous, is one of the most well-known and popular recovery programs worldwide. Alongside being one of the most well-known recovery programs, AA is usually the first recovery program those in search of help are introduced to. While the 12-step method of Alcoholics Anonymous has been effective for many, AA is not necessarily a blanket program and the overall effectiveness of the program is often debated. Specifically, the long-term success of Alcoholics Anonymous is often in question. One program that stands out as a popular alternative to the 12-step program is a recovery program known as SMART. Each of these programs carries several similarities, however, each has many key differences that may bring success to individuals seeking help.

 Let’s look at both AA and SMART, while breaking down the key differences between the two so that you can start seeking what might be the best program for you or a loved one seeking recovery.


Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, is defined to be, “an international fellowship of men and women who have had a drinking problem. It is nonprofessional, self-supporting, multiracial, apolitical, and available almost everywhere. There are no age or education requirements. Membership is open to anyone who wants to do something about his or her drinking problem.” AA follows the popular 12-step method which is considered to be the backbone for the majority of mainstream treatment programs. The 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous can be found on their website. Additionally, each step is bound by a certain principle. These principles help make up AA's program.

 The 12 principles are:

  1. Honesty
  2. Hope
  3. Faith
  4. Courage
  5. Integrity
  6. Willingness
  7. Humility
  8. Brotherly Love
  9. Justice
  10. Perseverance
  11. Spirituality
  12. Service

While Alcoholics Anonymous does live up to its billing and is effective for some, not every recovering addict is the same and therefore AA may not the best program for everyone. Many have cited a lack of connection to the spiritual aspects of AA’s 12-step program as a major hurdle. Additionally, as we previously mentioned, the long-term success rate of Alcoholics Anonymous has long been debated. Studies have ultimately yielded mixed results when it comes to looking at the success rate of 12-step programs like AA.

Taking into account the mixed results, it may be in one’s best interest to explore AA as well as other recovery options. Of these options, SMART is widely considered to be an effective alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous.


While many individuals in and outside of the recovery world have at least heard the acronym AA, SMART may be a completely new phrase to you. SMART, which stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training is a recovery program that was found in 1994. According to the SMART website, it is “an international non-profit organization that assists individuals seeking abstinence from addiction. The SMART approach is secular and science-based, using cognitive behavioral therapy and non-confrontational motivational methods.” SMART is centered around the goal of empowering individuals to achieve independence from addiction with their “science-based 4-Point Program”. 

 The four-point program teaches individuals how to:

  1. Enhance and maintain motivation to abstain
  2. Cope with urges
  3. Manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  4. Balance momentary and enduring satisfactions

SMART emphasizes that it is a secular, scientifically based program, however, individuals are welcome to bring a spiritual component to their recovery if they desire. While studies do not necessarily endorse the SMART program over the 12-step program of AA, many do consider it to be a direct alternative to AA and endorse exploring SMART. 


In comparing the programs, it is important to note the similarities between the two. Both programs are built around group meetings and encourage the importance of seeking recovery in a group setting. While both ultimately agree on the goal of treating substance abuse and providing recovery to individuals, the two take different paths to reach this point. Let’s look at what sets SMART and AA apart.

Steps vs. Stages of Change: While Alcoholics Anonymous is built on the 12-step method, SMART is formed on what they believe are the six stages of change. SMART’s recovery method is built around the belief that since people tend to be in one or more of various stages of change, taking a differing approach at each stage in the recovery process is the most effective method.

SMART’s Six Stages of Change are:  

  1. Pre-contemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance 
  6. Termination

Sponsorship: A major part of the AA program is finding a sponsor. Sponsors in the AA program are defined as, “an alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program and shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through AA.” However, SMART does not call for one to seek a sponsor as a part of its recovery program. SMART specifies that every part of their program occurs in the public eye. Additionally, SMART recommends seeing a psychotherapist, or even attending AA if an individual wants a sponsor. 

Meeting Style: An important part of AA meetings is sharing one’s story and struggles with substance abuse. This style makes it to where just one person is talking, while everyone else listens. SMART, on the other hand, designs its meetings to be discussion-style where the conversation is much more free-flowing and about talking with others, not talking to them. 

Labels and Graduation: An important part of AA is admittance and using a label to describe your state, SMART goes against this approach as it believes labeling one’s self only encourages the stigma of addiction. Additionally, unlike 12-step programs, SMART holds that an individual can “graduate” from SMART recovery once considerable progress is made. AA, however, believes that recovery lasts a lifetime and encourages members to participate for life. 

Foundation: A major part of both programs is their foundation. AA relies on a spiritual foundation in which a Higher Power is a crucial part of achieving success in the 12-step method. SMART takes a secular, scientific approach. SMART holds the belief of self-empowerment among its participants but does encourage one to individually incorporate spirituality into their recovery if they feel it brings success. 

Ultimately, there is no definitive answer when it comes to whether SMART or AA is more effective for someone seeking recovery. Both organizations believe that success comes down to what best fits the individual and their needs. For some, that may be Alcoholics Anonymous, while for others it may be taking part in SMART recovery. Ultimately, if you or a loved one desires help, it is important to explore what resources and different types of treatment are available. 

At Windmill Wellness Ranch, we understand that every individuals recovery is going to look different and we want to ensure the best outcome for everyone. This is why we offer both the 12-step program and the SMART recovery program. If you or a loved one are ready to find the path to recovery, contact our admissions team today to get started.