The 12-step cure to Caffeine Dependence

October 10, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- It was inevitable, she growled to herself, clutching her coffee mug as she read her morning newspaper, waiting for the rich brown liquid to clear away the internal cobwebs, waiting for the fuel to kick another day into gear.

For years she had blithely, lightly described coffee as the last drug of the '90s. But it was just a little joke, with just a little truth.

After all, the martini had been replaced by bubbling waters from distant caves under Italy and France. Meat had gone the way of all flesh.

Smoking had become a cult activity for people who huddled in the doorways of buildings like panhandlers.

But it still was perfectly acceptable to drink coffee in public. In fact, as the last of the '60s head shops had closed, the '90s coffee shops had opened. Across America, there were now coffee bars with sleek counters and roasted beans of every nationality on display in huge glass pharmaceutical jars.

These places catered to customers who knew espresso macchiato from caffe latte, both of which they could spell. They sold paraphernalia including $400 espresso machines and water thermometers and filters for a proper brew. They hired salespeople who did everything but carry beepers and wear little plastic coffee scoops on chains around their necks.

The in-crowd of the 1980s boasted about telling a Chateau Lafite from Chateau Margaux. Now they bragged about how they could tell Sumatra Gayo from Sumatra Mandheling.

Even the everyday Maxwell House drinker, who once considered Taster's Choice ads the height of coffee sophistication, was being enticed down the long road to $17 a pound Hawaiian Kona.

And now there it was before her very, bleary eyes. Right on page three: a study called Caffeine Dependence Syndrome.

One of those medical journals that had done so much to make life in America long, fat-free and nasty, was now after caffeine. Never mind the cola-drinkers and the tea-drinkers in the study, they were after her coffee.

The researchers from Johns Hopkins -- may their java turn to sludge -- reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that caffeine fits the ''generic criteria for substance dependence.''

This was the hard scientific proof of what everybody knew. But it came dressed up in the moralistic lingo of the 12-step times. Accessorized with words like dependence, abstinence, tolerance, withdrawal.

Never mind that caffeine was ''the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world.'' The coffee lover is now identified as a victim of CDS, an addict, a sinner in an era when we are what we eat . . . or drink.

The woman in question, the one sipping a freshly ground French-Roast Costa Rican, did not take kindly to being lumped with crack cocaine and nicotine users. Especially before she'd had her second cup.

Never once had she hidden bottles of vodka under the staircase, although there were little bags of backup beans in the freezer.

Never had she sifted through an ashtray for a half-smoked butt. The morning that she microwaved the leftover coffee from her dinner guests' cups simply doesn't count.

Through the roller coaster history of medical research -- coffee is good for you, bad for you, good for you -- she had clung to her favorite study. It showed that couples who drank coffee were more sexually active. You see, they were awake.

But now it was clear that her breed, or should I say her brew, was facing moral opprobrium and social ostracism. Soon they would be looked down upon by people passing their tables and whispering, ''java junkies.'' If they protest that they aren't

addicted, they will be told they're in denial.

Coffee will be sold by the dose instead of the cup. Decent coffee drinking Americans will have to hide their morning brew under de-caf labels in pots with orange handles. The coffee associations will take out ads like the tobacco companies that compare coffee drinking with free speech.

The woman knows now that she should have protested when the food police came for the Camembert. But whoever thinks they'll come for her own basic food group? What next? My gawd, she thought, there's caffeine in chocolate!

She was fully alert now, you might even say she had a buzz on. With a racing heart, our crusader put the coffee mug in the sink and went out to spread the alarm:

America! Wake up and Smell the Coffee. While you still can.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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