Alcohol Abstinence: Another AA Alternative

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : January 06, 
| 4 Sources

The HAMS Network
The Harm Reduction Model
Harm Reduction Theory In Practice

The HAMS Network brings harm reduction theory to problem drinkers

Alcoholics Anonymous, with their aim to promote alcohol abstinence, and the 12 step method have entered and stubbornly refuse to leave the public consciousness. Promoting the alcohol abstinence model, they have traversed the world establishing their alcohol treatment program as the only way to deal with alcohol dependency and all other addictive behaviors.

Now we have a situation in which everyone and his granny professes to know what's best for the alcoholic, a life without alcohol.

This is despite what the statistics reveal; that alcohol abstinence is for many alcoholics a pipe dream. Traditional treatments using the 12 step model have a woeful success rate.

Only 5% of alcoholics attending AA meetings are still sober after three years and yet we continue with the alcohol abstinence method.

There is reason to be positive, however, alternatives to AA are springing up. One of these, which proposes a more radical approach is the HAMS Network which puts into practice harm reduction theory. Unlike AA, you don’t have to quit alcohol to be a part of the program, although you do have to desire to change your habits.

This is the core basis of HAMS, the want for change.

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What Is Harm Reduction Theory?

In its simplest form, harm reduction theory is the belief that high risk behaviors are a part of life and always have been. On top of this people will always want to engage in them. You can't stop them doing it.

You can, however, provide them with the tools/strategies (if they want them) to lower the risk associated with the behavior/ activity.

Condemning high-risk behavior, particularly substance abuse, is the norm today, the Harm Reduction Model is a more compassionate approach.

It works on the belief that many making small changes (e.g. drinking heavily on just one night a week) is a far more achievable goal, than getting a few to make big changes (not drinking for the rest of their lives). The sum of the many making small changes will far outweigh that of the few making big changes.

In addition, studies show that harm reduction theory could be an effective approach, since it usually focuses on reducing heavy-drinking occasions, which predict alcohol issues more strongly and reliably than level of consumption.

An Example....

Many teenagers want to have sex. This can result in unwanted pregnancies and an increase in sexually transmitted diseases.

There are two possible responses to this problem.

  • Number one: Stop teenagers having sex i.e. promote celibacy before marriage, put the message across that sex is bad without love etc.
  • Number two: Provide education on the dangers of promiscuity and/or unprotected sex and provide strategies on how to reduce risk when engaging in sex
Number one is expecting many to make a big change in their behavior and to forgo a pleasure, whereas number two is expecting a relatively small change i.e. the use of condoms.

Number one has been proven not to work, just look at the statistics on the ever increasing amount of teen pregnancies.

Number two is an example of HARM Reduction theory in practice and does work.

The HAMS Network, Alcohol Abstinence and the Harm Reduction Model

The HAMS Network is an approach to alcohol problems that utilizes the harm reduction approach. It is a realistic and pragmatic approach that follows the theory above. Harm reduction theory banks on the notion that it is easier to get individuals to make small changes than to drive them to make big changes.

Its central belief is that you are never going to get people to quit abusing alcohol, there will always be those who want to. To attempt to stop them is lunacy.

What can be done, however, is to offer tools and strategies to those who wish to reduce the harm they are doing to themselves with their alcohol abuse. The HAMS Network provides these tools.

This is not to say that if you wish to follow the alcohol abstinence method you cannot utilize the HAMS approach. On the contrary, these tools are just as useful for those who wish to give up drinking altogether and need help in doing so. If fact the acronym HAMS stands for Harm reduction, Abstinence and Moderation support

Other AA Alternatives:

The HAMS Network Explained

I cannot do justice to the depth and variety of strategies for harm minimization provided on the HAMS Network site.

But a list of their 17 elements can give you a good idea as to what you can find there (most of the elements have charts and worksheets to help you complete them).

These elements are not to be used in the same way as the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. You are not required to do any of them if you do not wish, you can do them in any order skip some out or add your own. They are resources to help you reduce the harm you are doing yourself; not a rule for living.

The 17 Elements Of HAMS

  1. Do a cost/benefit analysis of your drinking
  2. Choose a drinking goal-safer drinking, reduced drinking or quitting
  3. Learn about risk ranking and rank your risks
  4. Learn about the HAMS tools and strategies for changing your drinking
  5. Make a plan to achieve your drinking goal
  6. Use alcohol-free time to reset your drinking habits
  7. Learn to cope without booze
  8. Address outside issues that affect drinking
  9. Learn to have fun without booze
  10. Learn to believe in yourself
  11. Use a chart to plan and track your drinks and drinking behaviors day by day
  12. Evaluate your progress (honestly report struggles) revise plans or goals as needed
  13. Practice damage control as needed.
  14. Get back on the horse
  15. Graduating from HAMS, sticking around or coming back
  16. Praise yourself for every success
  17. Move at your own pace, you don't have to do it all at once

What about Meetings?

Alcoholics Anonymous and other similar alcohol abstinence support groups have meetings, lots of them.

If you decide to take the HAMS approach for your problem drinking, then you can do it alone, with a therapist or a support group. it is entirely up to you.

There are not that many support groups around, however, if you take a look at where you can find a link a list of HAMS friendly meetings. Meetings are not an essential part of HAMS, but are an option.

Some people may find alcohol abstinence difficult to sustain in the long run. Nonetheless, there are dedicated treatment providers who can help you look for other options that are suitable for you. Reach out to them today.

alcohol abstinencePhoto by Yaro Felix Mayans Verfurth

If you or someone close to you wants help and advice on quitting drinking then take a look at the following pages:

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More


NCBI. Harm Reduction as an Alcohol-Prevention Strategy. 1996.

Hams. HAMS: Harm Reduction for Alcohol.

Alcoholics Anonymous. What is A.A.?.

Alcoholics Resource Center. AA Alternatives: What is HAMS?.

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