TIME Cancer

U.S. Smoking Rate Hits Historic Low

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And the number of people who say they smoke every day has dropped, too

Cigarette smoking among American adults has hit at an all-time low, health officials said Wednesday.

The percentage of smokers over the age of 18 dropped from 20.9% in 2005 to 17.8% in 2013, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report. That’s the lowest rate of smoking adults since the CDC started tracking the numbers via its National Health Interview Survey in 1965. Over the course of eight years, the number of U.S. smokers dropped from 45.1 million to 42.1 million, the report reveals.

Still, the CDC worries too many Americans still smoke, and a Nov. 13 report from the agency showed that a high number of young people still smoke, putting millions at risk for premature death.

The good news for health officials is that people seem to be cutting back, if not quitting. The number of people who smoke every day has dropped nearly 4% from 2005 to 2013, and the proportion of smokers who smoke only some days has increased. Of course, smoking less habitually still poses tremendous danger for the health.

“Though smokers are smoking fewer cigarettes, cutting back by a few cigarettes a day rather than quitting completely does not produce significant health benefits,” said Brian King, a senior scientific adviser with the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, in a statement.

Cigarette smoking continues to be the leading cause of preventable death among Americans, reportedly racks up $289 billion a year in medical costs and productivity loss.

Around 70% of all cigarette smokers want to kick the habit, and if a smoker quits by the time they turn 40, they can gain almost all of the 10 years of life expectancy they lose by smoking.

Americans who want to quit smoking can call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for free counseling and resources, or visit the CDC’s antismoking tips site here.

TIME China

China Proposes Ban on Smoking in Public Places

Beer Enthusiasts Gather For China's Largest Beer Festival
Chinese men take a smoke break during the 24th Annual Qingdao International Beer Festival on August 20, 2014 in Qingdao, China. Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

Ban would affect the country's 300 million smokers

Soon it could be illegal to smoke in public places in China, as the government considers tightening restrictions on the addictive habit.

The new rules, which are being presented to the public for the first time this week, would also ban smoking at certain outdoor areas like sports venues, restrict selling of tobacco to minors and force tobacco companies to include warnings about the dangers of smoking prominently on their package labels, the New York Times reports.

Smoking is incredibly popular in China: 300 million people partake regularly. It’s also cheap because, unlike in the U.S., the Chinese government doesn’t levy heavy taxes on tobacco products. Pro-smoking advertisements are even a common sight at schools. The World Health Organization had been pushing China to do more to curb smoking in the country for several years.

The reaction to the proposed rules has been largely positive so far, according to the Times. A local Beijing publication claims that 90% of the city’s residents support banning smoking at indoor public places.

[New York Times]

TIME health

Smoking News to Make You Cringe

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Stephen St. John—Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

Read TIME's reports from the era when the medical community thought it was O.K. to smoke

Thursday marks the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout (GASO), a nationwide event encouraging smokers to kick the habit.

We know today that cigarette smoking causes serious diseases in every organ of the body, including lung cancer, diabetes, colorectal and liver cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, erectile dysfunction, age-related macular degeneration, and more. Tobacco use rakes up more than $96 billion a year in medical costs, and it’s estimated that 42.1 million people, or 18.1% of all adults in the U.S. smoke cigarettes.

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the historic 1964 Surgeon General’s report that concluded that smoking caused lung cancer, and should be avoided. Before then, smoking messaging was depressingly inaccurate. Despite concerns — initially from a small minority of medical experts — the tobacco industry boomed in the U.S., and even doctors considered the effects of cigarettes to be benign.

Here are some examples of tobacco-related beliefs that appeared through the years in TIME Magazine:

1923: In an article about a recent compilation of smoking-related data, TIME was mostly concerned with whether smoking made people more or less brainy: “The outstanding fact of this survey is that every man in the literary group smokes, and the majority of the literary women. Moreover, most of them consider its effects beneficial, and claim that their literary and imaginative powers are stimulated by it.” And later: “From the laboratory data, the author concludes that it is impossible to say that tobacco smoking will retard the intellectual processes of any one person, but in a large group it may be predicted that the majority will be slightly retarded.”

1928: Some experts tried early on to warn about the effect of nicotine, but were met with resistance. In an article about a researcher presenting data on nicotine and the brain, TIME writes: “Many U. S. doctors have contended and often hoped to prove that smoking does no harm. In Newark, N. J., five children of the Fillimon family have been smoking full-sized cigars since the age of two. The oldest, Frank, 11, now averages five cigars a day. All of these children appear healthy, go to school regularly, get good grades.”

1935: Questions began to be raised about the effects on infants, though uptake was limited: “Physiologists agree that smoking does no more harm to a woman than to a man, if harm there be. According to many investigators, the only circumstances under which a woman should not smoke are while she has anesthetic gas in her lungs (she might explode), and while she produces milk for her baby. Milk drains from the blood of a smoking mother those smoke ingredients which please her, but may not agree with her nursling.”

1938 Even if there might be adverse health events for some smokers, not all physicians agreed it was a universal risk: “In step with a recent upsurge of articles on smoking, in the current issue of Scribner’s, Mr. Furnas offers several anti-smoking aids for what they are worth. Samples: 1) wash out the mouth with a weak solution of silver nitrate which ‘makes a smoke taste as if it had been cured in sour milk'; 2) chew candied ginger, gentian, or camomile; 3) to occupy the hands smoke a prop cigaret. For many a smoker, however, this facetious advice may be unnecessary, since many a doctor has come to the conclusion that, no matter what else it may do to you, smoking does not injure the heart of a healthy person.”

1949: By the late 1940s, smoking had become a contentious debate in the medical community: “Smoking? Possibly a minor cause of cancer of the mouth, said Dr. MacDonald. But smoking, argued New Orleans’ Dr. Alton Ochsner, can be blamed for the increase of cancer of the lung. Surgeon Ochsner, a nonsmoker, was positive. Dr. Charles S. Cameron, A.C.S. medical and scientific director, who does smoke, was not so sure. For every expert who blames tobacco for the increase of cancer of the lung, he said, there is another who says tobacco is not the cause.”

1962 More evidence was linking tobacco to cancer, and some groups were trying to get pregnant women to quit out of potential risks to the child, but still: “Some doctors, though, see no direct connection between smoking and prematurity; they argue that the problem is a matter of temperament, that high-strung women who smoke would have a high proportion of “preemies” anyway.”

1964 In a historic move, the 1964 Surgeon General’s report officially stated that cigarette smoking causes cancer, giving authority to anti-smoking campaigns. TIME wrote:

The conclusion was just about what everybody had expected. “On the basis of prolonged study and evaluation,” the 150,000-word report declared, “the committee makes the following judgment: Cigarette smoking is a health hazard of sufficient importance in the U.S. to warrant appropriate remedial action.” More significant than the words was their source: it was the unanimous report of an impartial committee of top experts in several health fields, backed by the full authority of the U.S. Government.

Read TIME’s full 1964 coverage of the Surgeon General’s report, here in the TIME Vault: The Government Report

TIME Cancer

Young Smokers Put Millions at Risk, CDC Says

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5.6 million young people under age 17 could die early

Over 1 in 5 high school students use tobacco products, and unless rates drop significantly, 5.6 million young people under age 17 will die early from a smoking-related illness, according to a recent report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Among young people who use tobacco products, over 90% are using nicotine vectors like cigarettes, cigars, hookahs and pipes. The vast majority of smokers try their first cigarette by the time they turn 18. The findings were published Thursday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The CDC analyzed its National Youth Tobacco Survey and report that in 2013, 22.9% of high school students and 6.5% of middle schoolers said they had used tobacco in the last 30 days. Those rates are slightly down from 2012, where 23.3% of high school students and 6.7% of middle schoolers said they’d used some form of tobacco in the last month. Unfortunately, the new numbers still show that close to 50% of all high schoolers and almost 18% of all middle schoolers have used a tobacco product at least once.

What about e-cigarettes? They’re still less popular than the traditional products: 4.5% of high schoolers and 1.1% of middle schoolers said they used them in the last month. How great of a problem e-cigarettes are for public health is still debated, but the products do contain nicotine, so therefore considered unsafe for kids.

One item of particular concern to the FDA are cigars, because they are taxed at a lower rate and often made to look like cigarettes, even having fruity flavors. Some are not regulated by the FDA in the way cigarettes are, which experts cite as a major concern.

Cigarette smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans every year, and for each death, there are about 32 people living with a smoking-related illness. It costs the U.S. economy billions in medical costs and loss in productivity. One strategy to make smoking less appealing to young people (besides the long list of terrifying health risks, like lung cancer) is by hiking up the price of tobacco, and launching more youth-targeted social campaigns, the CDC says.

Smokers can get free help quitting by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

TIME Icons

LIFE With Steve McQueen: Photos of the King of Cool in 1963

Photos of the legendary Steve McQueen riding motorcycles, camping, working out and shooting guns in the desert with his wife in 1963.

In the spring of 1963, already popular from his big-screen breakout as one of The Magnificent Seven and just a couple months away from entering the Badass Hall of Fame with the release of The Great Escape, Steve McQueen was on the brink of superstardom.

Intrigued by his dramatic backstory and his off-screen exploits — McQueen was a reformed delinquent who got his thrills racing cars and motorcycles — LIFE sent photographer John Dominis to California to hang out with the 33-year-old actor and, in effect, see what he could get.

[Below: In a video exclusive, McQueen’s ex-wife, Neile Adams, shares her memories of the ups and downs of their intense 16-year marriage.]

Three weeks and more than 40 rolls of film later, Dominis had captured some astonishing images — photos impossible to imagine in today’s utterly restricted-access celebrity universe. Here, LIFE.com presents a series of pictures — most of which never ran in LIFE — from what Dominis would look back on as one of his favorite assignments, along with insights about the time he spent with the man who would soon don the mantle, “the King of Cool.”

Trailing Steve McQueen was Dominis’ first Hollywood gig. “I liked the movies, but I didn’t know who the stars were; I was not a movie buff,” Dominis told LIFE.com. But he got the assignment because he and McQueen shared one vital passion: car racing.

“When I was living in Hong Kong I had a sports car and I raced it,” Dominis says. “And I knew that Steve McQueen had a racing car. I rented one, anticipating that we might do something with them. He was in a motorcycle race out in the desert, so I went out there in my car and met him, and I ask him, ‘You wanna try my car?'”

Later the two of them would zip around Los Angeles together. “We went pretty fast — as fast as you can safely go without getting arrested — and we’d ride and then stop and trade cars. He liked that, and I knew he liked it. I guess that was the first thing that softened him.”

From early morning until late at night, Dominis followed McQueen through his action-packed days: camping with his buddies, racing his various vehicles, playing with his family, tooling around Hollywood. Even back then, Dominis says, he had to be mindful that his constant presence did not become irritating.

“Movie stars, they weren’t used to giving up a lot of time,” he says. “But I sort of relaxed in the beginning and didn’t bother them every time they turned around, and they began to get used to me being there.

In 1963 McQueen had been married to Neile Adams for seven years (they had two young children) but the spark between them was still very much alive. “They were always necking!” says Dominis, who also remarked upon their childlike way with each other in notes he filed for LIFE’s editors back in ’63: “They chase each other around,” he wrote, “as though it were going out of style.”

“With strangers, I can’t breathe,” McQueen told LIFE. “But I dig my old lady.”

“I was very surprised” when Steve and Neile divorced in 1972, Dominis says. “But I lived in New York, and I never saw them [after the shoot was over]. We weren’t real friends, but we were friendly. They liked me, and they had a silver mug made: ‘To John Dominis, for work beyond the call of duty.’ I’ve still got it today.”

At the beginning of the LIFE shoot, McQueen participated in a 500-mile, two-day dirt bike race across the Mojave Desert.

“These people are not the wild motorcycle bums who go roaring through town a la Brando [in The Wild One],” wrote Dominis in his notes. “Rather they comprise doctors, lawyers, businessmen, mechanics, and others who enjoy the competition and the open country.”

Not only was he one of the few competitors to complete the race, LIFE reported, but he also led his amateur class for most of the way, until his bike broke down three miles from the finish.

“He liked camping, he liked rugged things, he liked firing a gun,” says Dominis. (“I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth,” he told LIFE.)

He also very much liked his cigarettes: Like many Hollywood stars of the time, McQueen was an unapologetically heavy smoker, and did not break the habit until he became sick in the late ’70s.

Seventeen years after Dominis made these photos, the actor was dead at just 50 years old, suffering a heart attack following a risky operation to remove the cancerous tumors laying waste to his body. Though Dominis never saw or spoke with McQueen after 1963, he continued to follow his movies, and cherished those three weeks they got to know each other.

“He was very open and playful,” says Dominis, “and just doing the things that he loved to do.”

TIME Cancer

Smoking and Drinking Raise Your Risk for Oral HPV

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Research sheds new light on HPV risk factors

Your favorite health vices—smoking and drinking—may pave paths to HPV, two new studies find.

A new study published in a research letter in JAMA looked at detailed health profiles from 6,887 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Those people with higher levels of biomarkers for tobacco exposure in their blood and urine also tended to have a higher prevalence of oral HPV type 16. That’s a strain that causes more than 90% of HPV-related oropharyngeal—or throat—cancers, says study co-author Dr. Gypsyamber D’Souza, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

(By the way, you can only get oral HPV through intimate oral contact—not by sharing forks or kisses on the cheek, D’Souza says. It’s unclear whether French kissing, when you’re actually exchanging saliva, also does the trick.)

The main causes of throat cancers are tobacco, alcohol and HPV, she says, but since tobacco use has declined in the U.S., HPV is becoming an increasingly important player.

“HPV is the primary causal agent of HPV-related oral cancer,” D’Souza says, and most people clear the infections on their own. “But these results suggest that tobacco may make these infections less likely to clear, and therefore smokers may have a higher risk of eventually developing oropharyngeal cancers.”

The increased risk doesn’t only come from smoking cigarettes: the researchers found an association with oral HPV-16 and tobacco exposure in general, even at very low levels indicative of secondhand smoke. People who were current tobacco users had more cases of oral HPV-16 than former users or people who had never used it.

The good news is that the HPV vaccine protects against HPV type 16, and though it hasn’t been definitively shown yet to protect against oral infection, some data suggest that it does, D’Souza says.

In other HPV-related news, a separate questionnaire study on 1,313 men published earlier this month in BMJ found that men who reported drinking more alcohol tended to also have higher levels of HPV. In fact, the biggest drinkers in the study had 69% of HPV prevalence vs 57% among the men who drank the least. (For HPV types that may increase the risk of cancer, those numbers were 35% vs 23%.)

Neither study could definitively point to a cause or mechanism, but studies have shown that smoking and drinking have immunosuppressive effects, which can promote inflammation and infection.

“What this adds to the story is an understanding of one reason why people who have not had very heavy sexual history, people who’ve had one lifetime partner . . . develop these cancers,” D’Souza says. “This cross-sectional study suggests that in some people tobacco use might be an explanation.”

TIME Etiquette

An Open Letter to the Person Smoking Their E-Cigarette Indoors

Man smoking e-cigarette in public
BSIP/UIG—Getty Images/Universal Images Group

I see how it could be easy to view the world as your personal "vaping lounge," but I really wish you wouldn't

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

Dear person smoking their e-cig next to me in this coffee shop,

I really hate your e-cigarette.

I’m proud of you for taking steps to quit smoking and, yes, I would much rather you vape than smoke. Smoking is terrible, and I’m not calling for a sweeping ban of e-cigs.

But please, I am imploring you, stop vaping indoors. I know it’s “just water vapor,” but it is water vapor that smells terrible. The vapor that is wafting over from your table to mine does not smell like pancakes; it smells like a synthetic blend of sugar-free butterscotch candies and diacetyl. Sure, this is “better” than cigarette smoke, but stepping in cat poop is better than stepping in dog poop, and both are still terrible options.

I realize that you are breaking no laws. You are technically allowed to “vape” indoors. In large indoor spaces, your habit is not such a big deal. I can walk away from you or you will eventually walk away from me. I may be temporarily annoyed, but this too shall pass.

But just because you are “technically allowed” to do something, that doesn’t mean you should do it. In smaller spaces — spaces from which I cannot escape — in planes, cafes, and restaurants, you need to put that thing away. You are being rude. Like eating a large amount of garlic before boarding a 10-hour flight or wearing strong perfume to an expensive restaurant.

I’m sure you are experiencing a sense of freedom the likes of which you’ve never felt. You no longer have to brave the elements to get your nicotine fix. This must be especially nice if you live in an area with extreme weather. This freedom may let you live out smoking fantasies you never thought possible. I get it; the no smoking signs in airplane bathrooms are so admonishing, even I have been tempted to dismantle those smug little smoke detectors. After enduring all of the restrictions imposed on smokers, I can see how it could be easy to now view the world as your own personal “vaping lounge,” but I really wish that you wouldn’t.

In the case of restaurants and cafes, you are interfering with the food. Flavor is a combination of taste and smell, and with the smell of pina colada air freshener floating under my nose, I am having a hard time enjoying my coffee. Your bubble gum vapor is not welcome when I’m eating a grilled cheese. And — I may be overstepping my bounds here — but I really wish you wouldn’t exhale bacon flavored vapor around my beer. We’ve already established that bacon-flavored beer is pretty terrible. I know you can still smoke in a lot of bars, but I don’t go to those bars. Besides, that’s what the patio is for.

I don’t think I’m being completely unreasonable. Even e-cig companies seem to agree with me:

Even if you are at an establishment that allows vaping and someone sitting next to you seems uncomfortable or requests you to stop vaping, the best thing to do would be to respect their request. At work, it is a good idea to inform your colleagues about what you are doing. Smokers have been notorious because of a few rude ones who blow their tobacco smoke right into people’s faces. But since vaping is so new, the opportunity still exists for the community to create a positive view of this culture.

Currently, you are not creating a positive view of this culture.

Between vaping liquid being called things likes “lizard juice” and those ridiculous holsters, you need all the goodwill you can generate. Subjecting people to cloying, food-esque scents is not the way to go about it. Besides being annoying, you may be giving people headaches or allergic reactions.

I am glad you quit smoking. If the e-cigarette helps someone achieve that goal, I support their decision to purchase and use one. But please be mindful of those around you. Because while vaping is considerably safer than traditional cigarettes, it just doesn’t smell that great.

Claire Lower is a freelance writer living in Florida.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Research

Why Pregnant Women Who Smoke Might Have Kids With Worse Sperm

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One more bullet point on a long list of reasons to quit smoking

Add diminished fertility to the long list of reasons why women should avoid smoking while pregnant or breast feeding. The mice sons—called pups—of mothers exposed to the smoke equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day during that time wind up with sperm that struggle in the reproduction process, according to a new study in mice published in the journal Human Reproduction.

“Our results show that male pups of ‘smoking’ mothers have fewer sperm, which swim poorly, are abnormally shaped and fail to bind to eggs during in vitro fertilisation studies,” said study leader Eileen McLaughlin, a chemical biology professor at the University of Newcastle in Australia, in a press release. “Consequently, when these pups reach adulthood they are sub fertile or infertile.”

Unlike previous research, the new study looked at pregnancy in mice to try to determine not just the consequences of smoking during pregnancy but also the mechanism behind it. Cigarette toxins affect the stem cells in the testes, McLaughlin says, which results in permanently lowered sperm production—and these results likely apply to humans, she adds. “We also know that oxidative stress induced by these toxins causes damage to the nuclei and mitochondria (the cell’s ‘power’ supply) of cells in the testes and this results in sperm with abnormal heads and tails, that are unable to swim properly or successfully bind and fuse with eggs.”

The knowledge that smoking has devastating long-term implications for the health of children is nothing new. Previous studies have suggested that smoking stems fetus growth, leads to premature delivery and causes birth defects. Nonetheless, 20% of women in the United States continue to smoke during pregnancy. The number is higher in Australia, where the study was conducted.

“We would ask that smoking cessation programmes continue to emphasise that women should avoid smoking in pregnancy and while breast feeding as the male germ line is very susceptible to damage during early development and the resulting sub fertility will not be apparent for several decades,” said McLaughlin.

TIME tobacco

Here’s the Best Way to Get Someone to Quit Smoking

Antismoking messaging works differently depending on who's watching, a new study shows

For years, the U.S. government has gone back and forth about whether or not it’s legal to force tobacco companies to use images of cancerous lungs and other graphic pictures on their cigarette packaging. The assumption, of course, is that the images will terrify any smoker into kicking the habit.

However, a new study published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research shows that the graphic tactic might not work on all smokers. The effectiveness of antismoking messaging depends on the attitude of the smoker.

Researchers from the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center studied 740 smokers to figure out what type of antismoking campaigns worked best. They discovered that messages that stress the benefits of quitting, like “quitting smoking reduces the risk of death due to tobacco,” were more effective at getting smokers to quit if those smokers thought that quitting would be very hard. The more graphic and negative ads like “smoking can kill you” tended to work best for smokers who thought they could quit whenever they wanted.

One of the reasons motivating messaging worked best among smokers who viewed quitting as a challenge could be that they’re already well aware of the health risks. On the other hand, the researchers speculate that loss-framed messaging — the kind that focuses on the negative consequences of continuing a behavior — worked better for smokers who felt they had more agency in their cessation because the negative ads built up motivation to stop.

Ultimately, the researchers believe that having a mixture of various messaging strategies is the best way to appeal to a broad range of smokers, and that currently there are far more negative messages than positive ones.

That’s not to say that scary ads don’t work. For a couple years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has poured resources into an intensive ad campaign called “Tips From Former Smokers” which features real former smokers who have experienced serious setbacks from their habit, like no longer being able to speak properly or having a baby too early. During past campaigns, the CDC has said that their quit lines experience 80% more activity when the ads are running compared with the weeks before.

Terrifying ads aren’t going away anytime soon, but mixing in more motivating messages might appeal to would-be quitters of all kinds.

TIME Family

Why I Don’t Eat With My Kids

Who invited those two? The 'family dinner' ain't all it's cracked up to be
Who invited those two? The 'family dinner' ain't all it's cracked up to be GMVozd; Getty Images

The curative properties of the nightly family dinner have been greatly overexaggerated

I love my daughters, I really do, more than I can coherently describe. I love my dinner hours too — not nearly as much, of course, but I’ve been on familiar terms with dinner for a lot longer than I’ve been on familiar terms with my children. Frankly, I don’t see much reason to introduce them to each other.

It’s not that my wife and I don’t eat with our daughters sometimes. We do. It’s just that it often goes less well than one might like. For one thing, there’s the no-fly zone surrounding my younger daughter’s spot at the table, an invisible boundary my older daughter dare not cross with touch, gesture or even suspicious glance, lest a round of hostile shelling ensue.

There is too the deep world-weariness my older daughter has begun bringing with her to meals, one that, if she’s feeling especially 13-ish, squashes even the most benign conversational gambit with silence, an eye roll, or a look of disdain so piteous it could be sold as a bioterror weapon. Finally, there is the coolness they both show to the artfully prepared meal of, say, lemon sole and capers — an entrée that is really just doing its best and, at $18.99 per lb., is accustomed to better treatment.

All of this and oh so much more has always made me greatly prefer feeding the girls first, sitting with them while they eat and, with my own dinner not on the line, enjoying the time we spend together. Later, my wife and I can eat and actually take pleasure in the experience of our food. But that, apparently, is a very big problem.

We live in the era of the family dinner, or, more appropriately, The Family Dinner™, an institution so grimly, unrelentingly invoked that I’ve come to assume it has its own press rep and brand manager. The Family Dinner™, so parents are told, is now recognized as one of the greatest pillars of child-rearing, a nightly tradition you ignore at your peril, since that way lie eating disorders, obesity, drug use and even, according to a recent study out of McGill University, an increased risk of the meal skipper being cyberbullied.

O.K., there is some truth in all of this. Sit your kids down at the table and talk with them over dinner every day and you have a better chance of controlling what they eat, learning about their friends, and sussing out if they’re troubled about something or up to no good. But as with so much in the way of health trends in a gluten-free, no-carb, low-fat nation, enough, at some point, is enough.

For one thing, the always invoked, dew-kissed days of the entire nuclear family sitting down to a balanced, home-cooked meal were less than they’re cracked up to be. Ever hear of the Loud family? Ever watch an episode of Mad Men — particularly one that plays out in the Draper kitchen? Welcome to family dinner in the boomer era.

Much more important, as a new study from North Carolina State University shows, the dinner-hour ideal is simply not possible for a growing number of families. The researchers, a trio of sociologists and anthropologists, spent 18 months conducting extensive interviews with 150 white, African-American and Latina mothers from across the socioeconomic spectrum, and an additional 250 hours observing 12 lower-income and poor families to get at the truth of what’s possible at mealtime and what’s not.

The first problem, the moms in the study almost universally agree, is that it is always more time-consuming to prepare dinner than you think it will be. Michael Pollan, the ubiquitous author and food activist, has written, “Today, the typical American spends a mere twenty-seven minutes a day on food preparation, and another four minutes cleaning up. That’s less than half the time spent cooking and cleaning in 1965.” To which I say, huh? And so do the moms in the study.

“I just hate the kitchen,” said one. “I know I can cook but it’s the planning of the meal, and seeing if they’re going to like it, and the mess that you make, and then the mess afterwards.” Added another: “I don’t want to spend an hour cooking after I pick [my daughter] up from school every day.” All of that sounds a lot more familiar to me than Pollan’s rosy 27+4 formulation.

Even if prep time weren’t a problem, dealing with the scheduling vagaries in two-income households can require day-to-day improvisation that makes regular, predictable mealtimes impossible. One couple studied by the NC State researchers worked for the same fast-food company in different parts of the state. Both parents often don’t know the next day’s schedule until the night before, which means inventing dinner plans on the fly and often calling on a grandmother for help. That kind of scrambling is part of what the researchers describe as “invisible labor,” work that is every bit as much a part of dinner as preparing and serving the food, but is rarely acknowledged.

Finally, there is the eternal struggle of trying to prepare a meal that everyone at the table will tolerate — a high-order bit of probability math in which the number of acceptable options shrinks as the number of people who get to weigh in grows. “I don’t need it, I don’t want it, I never had it!” declared one 4-year-old in one observed household. Parents throughout history have dealt with that kind of reaction with all manner of wheedling, bargaining and here-comes-the-airplane-into-the-hangar games, to say nothing of one mother in the study who simply turned a timer on and told her child to keep eating until the buzzer sounded.

Again, none of these problems diminish the psychological and nutritional value of a family sitting down to eat a home-prepared meal together — but perhaps that meal should be an aspirational option, not a nightly requirement. The family-dinner ideal, the authors write, has become “a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic and rather elitist … Intentionally or not, it places the burden of a healthy, home-cooked meal on women.”

With that said, I shall now open some wine and grill my wife and myself some salmon. After all, the girls are in bed.

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