I know people quit smoking on their own; can alcoholics do the same?

Readers Question Readers Question: (Name changed for privacy)
Stanton Peele Response by: Dr. Stanton Peele
Posted on November 4th, 2009 - Last updated: September 28th, 2023
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I know that people frequently overcome addictions on their own. I was seriously addicted to nicotine for most of my life.

As graduate students in pharmacology, we were taught that nicotine addiction was just a figment of people’s imaginations, that it was really just a habit, and that it was nothing compared to heroin addiction. If you were addicted to heroin, we were taught, you might as well give up, because heroin completely destroyed your will power, and there was nothing you or anyone else could do about it.

The Vietnam vets gave the lie to that particular myth, and I’ve subsequently had the occasion to chat with a number of people who have been addicted to heroin and/or cocaine and who have also been addicted to nicotine, and so far I haven’t met a single one who hasn’t agreed that being addicted to nicotine was the toughest one to kick.

Please don’t misunderstand me.

I’m not pretending that overcoming addiction is an easy thing to do, that anyone can do it in his or her spare time.

In fact I regard quitting smoking as the single most difficult thing I ever did in my entire life. And yet I’m pleased to stand, along with several million of my fellow citizens, as proof that it can be done if you’re sufficiently determined to do it.

But how to quit alcohol – Being addicted to alcohol — being an alcoholic, if you will — seems almost to be in another category. Is it, Stanton?

G. Alan Robison
Executive Director
Drug Policy Forum of Texas

Dear Al:

Alcoholics (a) in a remarkably large number of instances are also smokers, (b) almost invariably say that smoking is harder to quit than drinking, (c) quit (or cut back) drinking on their own in great numbers.

When I speak before a crowd of addiction counselors (virtually all “recovering” people, primarily from alcohol), I ask, “What is the toughest addiction to quit?”

The crowd responds in unison, “smoking.

I then ask, “Has anyone in this room quit cigarettes?” Sometimes half or more of the crowd raises their hands (this often means hundreds of people).

I then say, “How many of you relied on treatment or a support group to quit?” Often, not a single hand is raised. I then launch into, “Gosh, let’s think about what we just learned. Among a group of people experienced with addiction, who have been addicted to more than one thing, and who treat addictions, you have told me that a majority of you quit what you regard to be the toughest addiction of all without formal assistance.

Here are some data about alcoholic remission, from the National Alcohol Longitudinal Epidemiologic Survey, a nationally representative survey of drinking and drug use and abuse.

Note that this study was a massive government enterprise (45,000+ Americans interviewed face to face by census bureau staff, @ 4,500 of whom were at some point in their lives alcohol dependent) analyzed by an organization (the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) whose director (Enoch Gordis) claims alcoholics can never safely reduce their drinking:

NLAES Data on Ever-Alcohol-Dependent Subjects
Outcome categories
over past year:
Treated (n=1233) Untreated (n=3309)
Drinking with abuse/dependence 33% 26%
Abstinent 39% 16%
Drinking w/o abuse/dependence 28% 58%
(Deborah Dawson, 1996, “Correlates of past-year status among treated and untreated person with former alcohol dependence: United States, 1992,” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 20, 771-779.)

These data, by a U.S. agency that strongly endorses the disease/medical model of alcoholism and that adamantly disputes that alcoholics can reduce their drinking, show that

  • (a) three-quarters of alcoholics (alcohol dependent Americans) never seek treatment (AA included in the definition),
  • (b) more of these untreated alcoholics recover than those who seek treatment,
  • (c) looking at all people who have ever been alcoholic in the U.S., the largest group are currently drinking without incurring a diagnosis of alcohol abuse/dependence,
  • (d) people who don’t seek treatment stand a better chance of recovery because they may reduce their drinking without being instructed that it is impossible.

Stanton Peele

Have you been affected by the issues described in this article?

If you are finding it difficult to control your relationship with alcohol, then you may benefit from the Life Process Program which I have personally developed for internet use.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.


  • Tom says:

    I smoked for 10 years and was up to a pack a day, sometimes more. Took me several go around trying to quit and finally did. Smoke free going on 18 years. In the process of quitting the booze, found it smooth sailing when I stopped attending A.A. ( 4 months clean) What put me off from AA was the constant stream of booze stories and when I said I felt I had a good chance of quitting the booze because I quit smoking …….one member said smoking isn’t on the same level because smoking doesn’t do anything for you. Yet this guy smoked like a 🚂. Last day I ever attended AA and have no regrets.

  • ROY STEELE says:

    Hi all. All I know is, I lost my kids, many years’ ago, I didn’t attend regular AA meetings, as I was ‘instructed’ to. I don’t see them, (my kids) (12000 mls away) or their kids anymore. But I know I’d like to help others ‘kick the habit’. (Drink or drugs are same thing in my book) – drinking alcohol to excess was my downfall. I also ‘smoked’ like a trouper: I smoked 2 packs a day for 40 years; dropped the habit suddenly… (probably about the same time I dropped one of my lungs). (Converted) went to hand-rolling, ‘roll-ups’ & cigars and a pyp, since kicked that habit, too. Yay! Saves lorra-lorra do$h, Cilla (!). Difficult when in Pubs, restaurants etc. I am an [ex] licensee (Pubs/Restaurant Chef/Patron (retd). )
    Keep your sense of humour. Having a GSOH [even cynical] helps.

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