Hopkins researcher cautins on risks of caffeine addiction 'As with any drug, it should be treated with respect,' he says


WASHINGTON - Caffeine has supplanted nicotine as America's socially accepted drug of choice, but people are forgetting that, like nicotine, caffeine is a physically addictive drug that could be harmful, says Dr. Roland Griffiths, a Johns Hopkins pharmacologist.

"Thirty years ago, we just socially accepted smoking as a part of our culture," Griffiths says. "Nicotine really wasn't even considered a drug. I think the same is true of caffeine today."

Although current medical evidence show caffeine's health risks appear trivial when compared with those associated with nicotine, future findings could change perceptions, he says.

"If health risks are well-documented, caffeine could be catapulted in public perception from a pleasant habit to a possibly harmful drug of abuse," much like what happened with nicotine and cigarettes.

But while nicotine has fallen on hard times, caffeine popularity is surging.

Cola wars flood the airwaves, designer coffee houses sprout overnight like weeds, and "Espresso Barista" is a common listing in the help wanted section. Even as long ago as a decade, caffeine outranked nicotine as the most widely consumed drug in the world, according to a 1986 study conducted at the Addiction Research Foundation in Ontario, Canada.

By trading in cigarettes for sodas, has society simply substituted one socially accepted addiction for another?

The answer, Griffiths says, could lie in the way society embraces caffeinated products despite knowing some adverse effects may result from their consumption.

Just as nicotine products formerly were advertised, caffeine products today "are actively promoted as containing the drug," he says.

For instance, the motto printed across Jolt Cola's cans reminds drinkers it contains "all the sugar and twice the caffeine," while Celestial Seasons' ultra-caffeinated Morning Thunder Tea boasts that it packs "the power of a hundred charging buffaloes."

Societal acceptance aside, "caffeine is a drug," Griffiths warns, "and as with any drug, it should be treated with respect."

Susan Goodell, a Seattle-based spokeswoman for Starbucks, the coffee house giant, disagrees. "There are good points about caffeine and there are bad points about caffeine," she said. "There are so many studies out there now that contradict each other, we don't really pay that much attention."

Yet a recent Johns Hopkins study indicates caffeine in coffee, tea, chocolate bars and other food and beverages has addictive qualities that can cause physical withdrawal symptoms - ranging from headaches to vomiting - in heavy consumers of the drug.

"Once people start consuming caffeine on a regular basis, people choose to continue consuming it to avoid withdrawal." That's a drug-reinforcement characteristic also common among nicotine and cocaine addicts, he says.

But the top official of a Wall Street-based coffee trade association disagrees with Griffiths.

"Caffeine is not addictive," says Robert Nelson, president of the National Coffee Association of USA Inc.

Nelson cites caffeine's latest listing as a nonaddictive drug in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders.

"It's inappropriate to draw comparisons between caffeine and nicotine," he says.

Griffiths responds: "Studies proving these things are so difficult to track that, even today, the tobacco industry is claiming the health risks we see in people who smoke don't result from the use of nicotine or smoking."

"But that doesn't mean these [studies] aren't true."

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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