Can alcoholics ever drink in moderation? This an important question of vital interest to alcoholics and their families.



I.   Alcoholics Anonymous Theory

II.  But Many Can Drink Moderately

III. Who’s Right?

IV.  Resources


I. Alcoholics Anonymous Theory

The old Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) adage “once a pickle, never again a cucumber” expresses its belief. It insists that an alcoholic will always be alcoholic. It contends that no alcoholic can never go back to drinking in moderation. AA asserts that “Because the illness progresses in stages, some alcoholics show more extreme symptoms than others. Once problem drinkers cross over the line into alcoholism, however, they cannot turn back.”1

Once an Alcoholic….

A.A. literature states that “We understand now that once a person has crossed the invisible borderline from heavy drinking to compulsive alcoholic drinking, that person will always remain an alcoholic. So far as we know, there can never be any turning back to ‘normal’ social drinking. ‘Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic’ is a simple fact we have to live with.”2

Alcoholics Warned

Alcoholics are warned by A.A. that “After they have been sober a while in A.A., some people tend to forget that they are alcoholics, with all that this diagnosis implies. Their sobriety makes them overconfident, and they decide to experiment with alcohol again. The results of such experiments are, for the alcoholic, completely predictable. Their drinking invariably becomes progressively worse.” 3

Similar assertions about the assumed inability of alcoholics ever to drink in moderation without loss of control appear throughout both A.A. literatre and its website.

To the question “Can alcoholics ever drink in moderation?,” A.A.and its members answer with a firm “NO!”

II. But Many Can Drink Moderately

In reality, that belief is a myth. Research for decades has found that many alcoholics can and do learn to drink in moderation.

However, A.A. defines an alcoholic as a person who can never drink in moderation. This causes members to reject the strong and mounting evidence to the contrary. The common reaction is to argue that the alcoholics really were not alcoholic or they would not have been able to drink in moderation. They use their arbitrary definition to ignore the evidence.

When the first scientific evidence was published in 1972, it was met with strong resistance. This was for two main reasons.

First, the evidence was a direct threat to A.A.’s theory of alcoholism. To accept it was heresy…a violation of faith.

Second, there was great fear that some abstaining alcoholics would resume drinking in the hope that they, too, could learn to drink in moderation. According to A.A. ideology, all such attempts would be doomed to certain failure and the results would be disastrous.

All such evidence had to be wrong. More important,  believing it was very dangerous to the health and very lives of alcoholics.

Nation-Wide Study

In addition to all the other research evidence, a nation-wide survey of over 43,000 adults in the U.S. was conducted. It found that almost eighteen percent (17.7%) of people with alcoholism had become moderate drinkers. That is, they consumed within recommended federal guidelines.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) conducted the study. It found that about twelve percent (11.8%) had become drinkers with no symptoms.  However their consumption increased their chances of relapse. For men, that was considered to be more than 14 drinks per week or more than four drinks on any day. For women, it was more than seven drinks per week or more than three drinks on any day.

alcoholics ever drinkThe NIAAA reported that 27.3 percent were in partial remission That is, they exhibited some symptoms of alcoholism . Only one quarter (25.0%) remained alcoholic.4 For more, visit Alcoholics Can Recover from Alcoholism & Drink in Moderation.

III. Who’s Right?

So who’s right? A.A. and its ideologial belief that “once a pickle, never again a cucumber” or empirical researchers and scientific findings?

The findings can’t be ignored or dismissed using definitions. At this point, a more important question is, “what distinguishes alcoholics who can drink in moderation from those who can’t do so?”

In the meantime what are alcoholics to do? It’s probably very unwise for abstaining alcoholics to try to begin drinking. Why take an unnecessary chance? Another option might be to use The Sinclair Method under the close supervision of a doctor. However, the safest choice is to continue abstaining from alcohol. In the final analysis, it’s a very personal decision.

The question  “Can alcoholics ever drink in moderation?” is highly controversial. But the scientific evidence suggests that most can.

Please remember that this website makes absolutely no suggestions or recommendations about drinking, abstaining, therapy, or any other matter. Nor does it answer the question,  “Can alcoholics ever drink in moderation?”

IV. Resources for Can Alcoholics Ever Drink in a Moderation?


1. Alcoholics Anonymous. Is There an Alcoholic in Your Life? . . . A.A.’s Message of Hope. NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1976.

2. Alcoholics Anonymous. This is A.A.: An Introduction to the A.A. Recovery Program, p. 10.

3. Alcoholics Anonymous. Frequently Asked Questions About A.A. p. 31.

4. Adapted from NIH/NIAAA. Survey Finds That Many Recover From Alcoholism. NIAAA press release, Jan 19, 2005. The study defined alcohol use disorders and their remission according to the clinical criteria established by the Amer. Psychiatric Assn.

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Filed Under: Alcoholism Issues and Controversies