- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Gathering around the family dinner table may be one of the most powerful ways American families can prevent substance abuse in teen-agers, says a national campaign that kicked off yesterday.

Teens whose families eat dinner together at least five times a week are at a substantially lower risk for smoking, or using alcohol or illegal drugs, said Joseph A. Califano Jr., chairman and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

CASA is a lead backer of an annual “Family Day” that stresses the importance of family dinners. This year, President Bush has proclaimed Sept. 22 as Family Day.

The center is conducting a public service campaign featuring actress Jamie Lee Curtis and former first lady Barbara Bush in lighthearted ads.

One of Mrs. Bush’s ads includes video footage of Mr. Bush being asked about his views on the importance of family dinners. He makes a joke about happily eating dinners as a child “so long as my mother wasn’t cooking.”

“It’s not good to make fun of your mother, even if you are the president,” Mrs. Bush chides him in her ad. Families should eat together Sept. 22 “even if you’re not a great cook,” she says.

The campaign is also supported by the Department of Health and Human Services, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, General Mills, the Coca Cola Co., and dozens of other businesses and groups.

At a press event yesterday, Wade F. Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families, said it is not the cooking or the food as much as the time and opportunity for interaction that makes family dinners important.

Family dinners usually take place “against a backdrop of caring and sharing,” he said. Regular dinnertimes also offer teens a consistent connection point with their parents — “like regular office hours” for the children.

Regular dinnertimes can be established even if parents have late hours, Mr. Horn said.

“Don’t get hung up on the time of the meal. Kids will survive with a snack until dinner at 8:30 [p.m.] a lot easier than they will survive a family that never gets together to share with one another,” he said.

Mr. Califano said several CASA surveys, including one released yesterday, have shown a connection between regular family dinners and low risks for substance abuse.

For yesterday’s study, researchers asked 1,987 children ages 12 to 17 about their use of alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, as well as their family dinner habits.

The survey showed that of teens who ate dinner with their families five times a week or more, 68 percent had not tried alcohol. Of teens who had family dinners two or fewer times a week, 47 percent hadn’t tried alcohol.

Trends were similar for teen cigarette use, marijuana use and having friends who used marijuana.

Teens with regular family meals also were most likely to say they received top grades in school and were less likely to say they were “often bored” or had stressful lives.

Substance abuse is at the core of most of America’s crime and health problems, said Mr. Califano, a former secretary of health, education and welfare. Eating dinners together is “a simple, comfortable and effective” way families can combat substance abuse, he said.

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