SMART vs. Alcoholics Anonymous: 8 Major Differences

By Nina Bradshaw is a professionally qualified social worker and therapist in the UK. She earned a Master's Degree in Personality Disorder Studies, a Master's Degree in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and a Master's Degree in Sociology/Social Policy/Social Work.

Sober Recovery Expert Author

SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) is a resource available for people in recovery who do not wish to attend AA or other twelve-step programs. It advertises itself as an alternative to AA, although SMART literature also suggests that SMART can be used in conjunction with AA.

AA is the most widely used self-help resource to assist people to maintain their sobriety while SMART is a relative newcomer to the field of recovery. Because of this, many people may not know how one program differs from the other.

Here are 8 areas of differences that distinctly separate SMART and AA from each other.

Here are 8 areas of differences that distinctly separate the two programs from each other:

1. History

While AA was established in the 1930s with the “Big Book” being published in 1939, SMART is relatively new, only having been around since 1994.

2. Fundamental Beliefs

SMART is a secular organization, not based on spirituality. Instead of relying on a higher power like AA, the program is based on scientifically researched therapies and tried and tested therapeutic methods taken from other disciplines.

Since it’s based on scientific theory, SMART claims that it will develop as science develops. Contrarily, the AA big book has changed very little since it was first published.

3. Time Involvement

SMART is not open-ended, rather it anticipates that people will eventually leave the program when they are ready. Many choose to stay involved for a long period regardless, and there is no reason that you can’t return after a period of absence. However, there is no expectation that people will remain committed to lifelong involvement, which is expected in AA.

4. Sponsorship

Another major difference is that AA is based on the sponsorship model while there are no sponsors in SMART. Newer members in AA seek out a sponsor to guide and take them through the twelve steps and assist in their recovery, especially in the difficult early days, weeks, and months of sobriety.

5. Structure

AA members are expected to complete the twelve-step program and live according to the principles of the twelve steps. The final step advocates the dissemination of the twelve-step philosophy to others who are struggling with addiction.

While SMART does have a recognized handbook and program to follow, it is not nearly as formal as the twelve-step program. Instead, its philosophy is likened to a “toolbox” for people to draw upon to assist in maintaining their abstinence.

6. Leadership

AA meetings are run by volunteers in attendance at the meeting while SMART meetings are run by trained volunteers, usually people who have carried out a course of training to become a recognized facilitator.

Facilitators do not have to be in recovery, as they can be an alcohol counselor or other professional involved in addiction treatment.

7. Discussion

When sharing in an AA meeting, there is no discussion about the person’s experience and the meeting may move onto just another person sharing their difficulties. On the other hand, SMART encourages open discussion in its meetings and there’s even an agenda that focuses on one or more of the SMART tools before an open-ended discussion takes place.

8. Views on the Use of Medication

Medication to treat addiction is often frowned upon as a treatment by people in AA. However, SMART advocates the use of appropriately prescribed medications and psychological treatments alongside SMART resources.

Similarities Between SMART and AA

Even though there are major differences between AA and SMART, there are also a number of similarities. Both, of course, are resources to assist people with their recovery. Neither organization requires payment (no dues or fees, as the AA preamble states) though voluntary donations are welcomed at both.

A key similarity between the two programs is that they are both run on self-help principles and the idea of bringing people who are in the same situation together.

It is entirely down to the personal choice of which resource you choose. Both AA and SMART have benefits and drawbacks but the important thing to remember is that they can both help you maintain your sobriety.

If you or someone you know is seeking help with addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 866-606-0182 to start the path to recovery today.

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