Caffeine Fiends


A few years ago, when the Food and Drug Administration said it planned to regulate cigarettes as "nicotine delivery devices," the Competitive Enterprise Institute sent a tongue-in-cheek letter to FDA Commissioner David Kessler, suggesting that he might want to regulate soft drinks as "caffeine delivery devices."

CEI, a free-market think tank, was poking fun at Kessler's new criteria for classifying products under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. But if anti-caffeine alarmists have their way, CEI's letter may turn out to be prescient.

"Caffeine is the new drug of choice among kids," warns The Nation on the cover of its April 27 issue. "Caffeine Inc. is raking it in, often targeting teens and younger kids," writes freelance journalist Helen Cordes, citing Coca-Cola's cuddly polar bears. "The major caffeine suppliers to kids have been throwing millions into advertising and giveaways."

Lest readers fail to recognize the ominous parallels, Cordes explicitly compares "the soda barons" to cigarette manufacturers. She says both try to hook their customers at an early age while denying that they are selling an addictive drug, and both pay scientists to falsely reassure the public.

Meanwhile, "studies showing the negative consequences of child caffeination are virtually ignored," and "most parents are unaware of the health problems associated with caffeine." Cordes concludes that soft drink makers are "pushing a drug on pre-adults, one that may have serious health consequences for a whole generation."

The evidence to back up that claim is thin. Cordes points to side effects, such as anxiety and insomnia, that are familiar to anyone who has ever had too much coffee. But the other risks she cites are speculative.

Cordes notes that caffeine "can cause excess excretion of calcium" and quotes a nutritionist who says "we may see increasing rates of osteoporosis." Then again, we may not. According to a newsletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest–which, like Cordes, says people don't worry enough about caffeine–"the loss amounts to about five milligrams of calcium for every six ounces of coffee or two cans of cola." This is the amount of calcium in two tablespoons of milk or yogurt.

Cordes also says "caffeine and carbonated bubbles can trigger 'refluxing,' in which a sphincter muscle allows the acidy contents of the upper stomach to back up and irritate portions of the respiratory tract." She quotes a pediatrician who has found that "most children with chronic ear infections and respiratory illnesses have refluxing problems." But it's not clear whether these kids drink a lot of soda or, if they do, whether that has anything to do with their ailments.

Perhaps sensing that the scientific case against caffeine is not exactly devastating, Cordes tries to scare parents about the sheer amount of caffeine their kids are supposedly consuming. Without citing a source, she asserts that "high-octane Mountain Dew is the preferred soda of the under-6 set"–which will come as a surprise to parents of preschoolers.

Cordes worries that "many kids get up to 40 percent of their meals" in "fast-food joints, convenience stores and restaurants," where the soda flows freely. She dwells on the threat that Big Gulps pose to the youth of America (because they're so big, you see, and kids tend to gulp them). She warns that "vending machines…increasingly offer only twenty-ounce bottles instead of twelve-ounce cans." And don't even get her started on the subject of Starbucks.

Cordes seems to think parents are oblivious to caffeine's impact on their kids. She deems it necessary to warn them, for example, that high doses "typically make children nervous, anxious, fidgety, frustrated and quicker to anger." And she wonders if parents realize that iced tea contains caffeine.

Cordes is right about one thing: Caffeine is an addictive drug. Regular users often develop a strong attachment to it, and they may suffer withdrawal symptoms, including headache, drowsiness, and irritability, if they don't get their fix. But the problems associated with caffeine addiction are rarely serious, and most people find that the habit's benefits outweigh its costs.

Americans have trouble with the notion that drug use, let alone addiction, can be rationally chosen. That may help explain why an official of the National Soft Drink Association told Cordes caffeine is in soda "solely for the taste"–a claim reminiscent of the tobacco industry's stance on nicotine. Or maybe he just didn't want to give the FDA any ideas.