Smoking Declines and Food Fandom Grows. Coincidence?

Smoke-Free Texas, a coalition agitating for a state law prohibiting smoking in restaurants and bars, this month released a study showing people would eat out more often if they didn't have to contend with secondhand smoke.

No offense to Smoke-Free Texas, but that's hardly a surprising finding. Even most smokers don't like their food seasoned with stale cigarette smoke: That's why many restaurants not covered by restrictive ordinances have resorted to home rule and eliminated their smoking sections. With the national smoking rate down to about 20 percent, there aren't too many diners clamoring to be seated in a smoke-filled room.

Non-smoking policies are good for business, and while I don't have a fancy poll to back up my claim, I'd wager non-smokers are good for the restaurant business too.

In 1955, 57 percent of men smoked. They smoked so much that they more than made up for the men -- and the more than 70 percent of American women -- who didn't smoke. The per capita inhale stood at one pack a day. It was common, of course, to smoke on the train, smoke in the elevator and smoke while eating. Americans smoked over steak Dianes, chop sueys and chicken a la king -- the specific dishes didn't always matter, because the nation's collective palate had been deadened by smoke.

Greek scientists in 2009 scrutinized the tongues of 62 soldiers, and discovered the smokers had flatter taste buds than their non-smoking colleagues. Since taste buds are linked with taste sensitivity, researchers gave the flat-budders a taste test: 85 percent of them performed worse than non-smoking subjects. Smoking, the study concluded, "can lead to decreased taste sensitivity."

But a tongue with rounded taste buds can presumably appreciate the nuance of lavender; the shading of a delicate cream sauce and the subtlety of expertly crafted olive oil. A non-smoker stands a good chance of becoming a food lover.

As the many smokers gathered around kitchen back doors demonstrate, smokers can love food too. But I don't think it's a coincidence that the fetishization of food has taken off as smoking has plummeted. Perhaps it's just a shift in oral fixations, but it's hard to imagine a generation with dulled tongues getting aroused by raw milk cheeses and single barrel whiskies.

Greg Cameron, spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, told me there's no evidence that less smoking has led to the hordes of food obsessives snapping cell phone shots of their dishes and trading rumors about chefs.

Still, he ventures, "It would make sense. It might be kind of cool to go into a restaurant and ask people if they're really into the fact that they can taste their food."

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Hanna Raskin
Contact: Hanna Raskin