Get help today 888-319-2606 or sign up for 24/7 text support.
American Addiction Centers National Rehabs Directory

What’s the Difference Between AA and SMART?

Few visitors to this website haven’t heard of AA, but how about SMART? The two recovery programs have significant similarities…and differences.

Here’s the scoop on each, so you can make an informed decision about your own recovery treatment process.


Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is “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, and its principles and core beliefs are outlined in the Big Book of AA, its central text.

Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) is “a nationwide, nonprofit organization which offers free support groups to individuals who desire to gain independence from any type of addictive behavior. SMART Recovery also offers a free Internet Message Board discussion group and sells publications related to recovery from addictive behavior.”

What Does Each Program Look Like?

AA: Alcoholics Anonymous follows a 12-step program and defines these steps as “a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”

SMART: This recovery approach includes a Four-Point program. It teaches how to:

  • Enhance and maintain motivation to abstain
  • Cope with urges
  • Manage thoughts, feelings and behaviors
  • Balance momentary and enduring satisfactions

What Are the Main Differences?

While both attempt to treat substance abuse, and both encourage group meetings, AA and SMART differ in several key areas.

  • Foundation: AA has a spiritual foundation. Those working the 12-Steps are encouraged to believe in a Higher Power they can rely on to help them with their recovery. SMART has a solely scientific foundation and teaches increasing self-reliance.
  • Meeting style: AA meetings involve sharing one’s story and confessing one’s struggles with substance abuse. Members typically talk to everyone in the room, while everyone else listens. SMART Recovery meetings are discussion-style. Members “talk with one another, rather than to one another.”
  • Length: AA members are encouraged to continue their participation for life. SMART Recovery typically lasts months or years.
  • Sponsors: A major tenet of the AA program is sponsorship. AA defines sponsorship as “an alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through AA” SMART Recovery doesn’t involve sponsors.
  • Language: AA encourages each member to admit they’re an alcoholic. SMART Recovery discourages use of this label.

Is One Better Than the Other?

The success of any treatment program is based on a large number of variables. In the end, it is a personal decision. For some, AA is a better fit. For others, SMART may be more suitable. The key is to get the help you or the help your loved one needs. For additional treatment resources and options, click here.

Learn More About AA

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.