Alcoholics Anonymous is a key means by which millions of Americans deal with drinking problems.

However, white Americans are much more likely to engage in the trusted “12-step” program than Black of Hispanic drinkers, a new study finds.

Black and Hispanic alcoholics are about 40% less likely to have ever attended an AA meeting, compared to white drinkers, according to analysis of data from the National Alcohol Survey.

Researchers also discovered age-related disparities.

Among adults younger than 30, less than 5% had ever attended AA versus about 12% of those 30 and older. After accounting for other factors, younger adults still attended AA at a third of the rate of older adults.

“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, a senior scientist with the Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, Calif.

AA and other similar support groups have become a staple for treatment of alcohol and substance use disorders, researchers said in background notes. Research has proven these groups can help people achieve lasting recovery.

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

And in the United States, more Americans turn to AA-type groups than specialty substance abuse treatment programs, Zemore noted.

It’s not clear why racial and age disparities in AA participation exist, Zemore said.

Gaps in AA attendance could not be explained by factors like the severity of a person’s alcoholism or whether they’d received specialty treatment. After accounting for those factors, researchers still found that people of color and young adults were less likely to have attended AA.

For the study, published Jan. 24 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers analyzed responses from nearly 8,900 Americans who participated in the National Alcohol Survey between 2000 and 2022.

There may be something about AA that is simply “not attractive” to young adults and people of color, Zemore said.

For example, past studies have found that people of color attending 12-step meetings have reported conflicts with the program’s general philosophy, or have felt scrutinized or discriminated against, she noted.

And young adults may be turned off by the religious nature of the meetings. Participants have to acknowledge powerlessness over alcohol and give their lives over to a “higher power.”

AA has evolved over the years, and now offers meetings in different languages and hosts specific groups for women and people of color.

But these new findings found that disparities in attendance haven’t narrowed since 2000.

“This problem probably isn’t going to be solved by AA alone,” Zemore said in a journal news release.

More information

Stanford University has more on Alcoholics Anonymous.

SOURCE: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, news release, Jan. 24, 2024