Joseph A. Califano, Jr. says America’s drug problem will not be solved in court or in legislative hearing rooms by judges and politicians.

“It will be solved in living rooms and dining rooms and across kitchen tables – by parents and families,” explains the former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) and founder of the The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia), a national nonprofit research and policy organization focused on improving the understanding, prevention and treatment of substance use and addiction.

CASAColumbia organized its first Family Day in 2001 to educate parents about the benefits of frequent family dinners and promote simple acts of parental engagement to help prevent substance use in children and teens. What started out as a grassroots effort has expanded into a national movement supported by a network of partners, including The Coca-Cola Company.

We spoke with Califano ahead of 2015 Family Day – Monday, Sept. 28 – to learn more about CASAColumbia’s work and why the road to a drug-free America starts at the dinner table.

What research or insights inspired you to organize the first Family Day?

We had surveyed teenagers for about 10 years, asking specific questions about their conduct as it relates to nicotine, alcohol and drug use. In 1996, we noticed that kids who said they always had dinner with their parents were much less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs than those who didn’t. As we calibrated subsequent surveys, we discovered a direct relationship: the more often teens had dinner with their parents, the less likely they were to smoke, drink or use drugs.

Our research showed how critical parents are in other ways, too. The road to a drug-free country is through our kids, and the road to getting our kids to grow up drug-free is through their parents. Parental power is more influential than peer pressure or the glorification of drug use in the entertainment world and on social media. That led to Family Day and the How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents book. When we started promoting Family Day, many governors and mayors proclaimed it. And it has expanded over the years to all kinds of local organizations, parent groups and church communities. Thanks in good part to Coca-Cola, hundreds of PTAs and local community organizations across the country now celebrate Family Dayto remind parents how important it is to have dinner with their kids.

Family Day
Family and Friends United celebrate Family Day 2012 at Orlo Vista Park in Orlando, Fla.

Why do family dinners make such a difference?

It’s not just the meal… it’s the conversation around the table. Family dinners are a comfortable time to talk to your kids and listen to them. If you’re having dinner with your kids, you get to know when they’re up and when they’re down, if they’re over-scheduled, and how they feel about their friends and classmates. We live in a society where parents are busy, where they are often both working, and Mom or Dad may be putting in long hours. When we surveyed kids, they’d say: “It shows my parents really care. They have dinner with us almost every night.”

Regular family dinners are a phenomenal surrogate for parental engagement. Parents who make the effort to have dinner with their families are parents who are going to their kids’ athletic events and school plays, helping with homework and reading with their kids at night. And kids who benefit from frequent family dinners are not only less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs. They’re also getting better marks, and they’re more likely to be involved with extracurricular activities.

Family Day is not solely focused on kids. What do parents gain from eating dinner with their families?

What’s the most important thing in the life of a parent? It’s not the job, or being a superstar lawyer, corporate executive or surgeon. It’s raising your kids and having the satisfaction that they have values and grow up to be productive and happy citizens, and have families of their own. That’s the greatest satisfaction a parent can have. Being engaged with your kids, having frequent family dinners with them… these kinds of things will help give them the ability to develop their skills and have happy, productive lives.

Family Day
What motivated you to establish CASAColumbia in 1992?

Through my experience, both in the Johnson administration and as secretary of HEW, I learned about the impact of all substances. I saw the damage tobacco, alcohol and drugs like marijuana, heroin and cocaine were having on our nation’s children and families. At the time, no organization said the problem is addiction and substance abuse – and not any particular substance. People didn’t understand the devastating costs of addiction in terms of health care costs, criminal justice system costs, social services costs, homelessness, welfare, productivity, family breakups, domestic violence and more. I started CASA to try and help educate the American people… to get them to understand what this problem was doing and to come up with practical, realistic ways to deal with it.

How has the national addiction and substance abuse picture changed since then?

There’s now a much more extensive smorgasbord of substances available. There are a lot of newer chemical drugs like ecstasy and synthetic marijuana. And the abuse of prescription drugs – including painkillers among teens and medications like Ritalin and Adderall among tweens and teens, and OxyContin, Xanax and Vicodin among older teens – is destroying kids and families. Where do kids get them? Often from their parents and from friends who get them from their parents. Parents who are prescribed these medications keep them from their kids and keep track of their pills. Years ago, parents would lock the liquor cabinets. Now they may want to think about locking their medicine cabinets, and certainly talking to their kids about the dangers of prescription drugs when not prescribed by a physician.

Are things getting better or worse?

It depends where you look. Alcohol abuse among kids is down, and cigarette smoking is down. But marijuana use is up, and kids are using new e-cigarettes at a high rate. They are also vaping not only nicotine, but also marijuana.

What is the most common public misconception about addiction and substance abuse?

That addiction is not a disease. Addiction, just like diabetes or high blood pressure, is a chronic disease. And, by in large, people who become addicts need continuous support even after going through intensive treatment, just as diabetics need to take insulin and those with high blood pressure need to take their pills each day.

What about misconceptions among parents?

That parents don’t have the power to prevent substance abuse among their kids. Parents have the greatest influence on their kids, and their engagement is absolutely critical. Our surveys show that when kids who do not use drugs are asked why, the overwhelming reply is, “because my parents are really opposed and would be angry if I did.” When I speak to parent groups, I’m struck by how many moms and dads do not recognize the power they have. I’m also surprised by parents who say things like “Everybody smokes pot.” That is simply not true. Around 19 to 20 percent of teenagers say they smoke pot, which means 80 percent do not. And we’re seeing a drop in binge drinking among teens. Everybody doesn’t do it, and parents need to recognize that.

How has CASAColumbia’s work evolved over the last 20-plus years?

Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
Education has always been our primary focus. We published our first report in 1992 or 1993. And now, with our new president, Sam Ball, a distinguished professor at Yale University and expert on substance abuse and addiction, we remain focused on educating people, including the public health community and so-called power elites. Sam has also expanded our focus beyond alcohol, tobacco and drugs to include binge eating and gambling. 

What achievements are you most proud of?

First, the fact that this is now a permanent organization with locations at both Columbia and Yale. We’re affiliated with these two great universities. And, as a result, I think our education efforts have more of an impact. The issue of addiction and substance abuse is on the front burner, particularly with the increased heroin use in the Northeast and the national focus on our prison system. We are proud to help our people and politicians come to recognize that addiction is a disease and should be treated as one, just as we have for a quarter century supported the creation of drug courts after analyzing the effectiveness of the first three. Now there are hundreds of courts across the country, which use their power to get kids into treatment. We have a long way to go, but every journey begins with the first few steps, and we are walking in the right direction.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr. is founder and chairman emeritus of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia), a science-based, multidisciplinary organization designed to find the most effective ways to prevent and treat addiction. The former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare is the author of How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents.