Imagine the hysteria.
Otherwise upstanding citizens crouch in alleys or huddle near the loading docks of their office buildings or factories. Braving the summer heat and the winter cold, they clutch ceramic mugs or aluminum cans. Their eyes shift relentlessly back and forth as they check to see if they’re being watched.
It is the year 2000 and America is gripped in an anti-caffeine frenzy.
Co-workers, friends and family scan coffee cups and flip-top cans for lipstick and greasy thumb prints - dead giveaways of a user.
There are cries for remote cameras to record license plate numbers at the few remaining espresso stands. Law enforcement agencies label coffee mugs drug paraphernalia, the equipment of pathetic addicts.
Non-drinkers complain of headaches from second-hand aroma: the smell of coffee brewing, tea seeping and the burst of fizz when a can of pop is opened.
Pure fiction? Perhaps. But if the past two decades are any indication, America is on a purging frenzy.
In the 1980s, high-fat and high-calorie food came under fire. In the 1990s, it was cigarettes. At the turn of the century, caffeine could become as covert as cocaine.
Both are drugs. And both are stimulants.
“A drug is a chemical that alters an existing process in the body. From a pharmaceutical point of view, caffeine is a drug,” said Clarke St. Dennis, a clinical pharmacologist at Sacred Heart Medical Center who specializes in psychopharmacology.
Humans have been eating or drinking caffeine in some form since prehistoric times.
In Ethiopia (original home of the coffee tree) coffee beans were crushed and rolled in fat. Drinking coffee first took hold in Arabia. Tea originated in Asia. And in the Amazon, beans from the cacao tree were used to make the first cocoa and chocolate.
Today, caffeine is added to soft drinks and prescription and nonprescription medications.
After oil, coffee - the principal source of caffeine - is the world’s most widely traded commodity, according to researcher Jack James, author of “Caffeine and Health.”
“Our general belief in the chemical dependency field is it is addictive,” said Irene Bittrick, director of the Alcohol/Drug Studies Program at Eastern Washington University and a substance abuse counselor. “People can build a tolerance to it so that after awhile they need more and more to get the stimulant effect.”
In 1987, the American Psychiatric Association labeled caffeine intoxication a mental disorder.
To be diagnosed with caffeinism, a patient must meet the following criteria:
Have recently consumed caffeine, usually more than 250 milligrams.
Have at least five of these symptoms: restlessness, nervousness, excitement, insomnia, flushed face, frequent urination, gastro-intestinal disturbance, muscle twitching, rambling flow of thought and speech, elevated heart rate, periods of inexhaustible energy or excessive nervous movements.
None of the above symptoms can be due to another physical or mental disorder.
Marsha Naegeli-Moody is a self-described caffeine addict.
“I had to have it every two hours. If I didn’t, I was an irritable grouch,” she said. “It dawned on me that I had a problem one day when I was standing outside in the cold in a line of 30 people waiting for Starbucks to open. It was so degrading.”
Naegeli-Moody was up to 10 cups of coffee a day when she founded a 12-step support group for caffeine addicts in Portland patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous.
While it appears there is no such organization in the Spokane area, Naegeli-Moody said the need is everywhere.
“Eighty-six percent of Americans drink several cups of coffee each day,” she said. “It affects every area of life. Appearance. Aging. Birth defects.
Even stained teeth. My prediction is that caffeine is the last holdout. It’s the one little high we’re holding on to, but I think that will change as more information comes out.”
The data wars have already begun. Health researchers are taking aim at caffeine. Corporations manufacturing products like coffee and soft drinks are firing back.
The International Food Information Council Foundation, a food industry organization, says in a brochure about caffeine that the risk of birth defects from caffeine is minimal to nonexistent.
Yet a brochure from Group Health Northwest advises pregnant women to greatly reduce or altogether cease using products with caffeine. It cites a study in which caffeine caused birth defects in laboratory animals.
There are other examples.
The Group Health brochure warns nursing women that if caffeine enters their breast milk their babies will be overstimulated and have difficulty sleeping. Interestingly, the brochure is in a rack next to an espresso stand at the HMO’s Lidgerwood clinic.
Other research shows caffeine can help alleviate both headaches and respiratory ailments. It used to be injected into newborns with breathing problems.
One thing seems certain - the anti-caffeine movement is still in its infancy. Commercials for caffeine-laced products like coffee, soft drinks, chocolate and over-the-counter medications are still acceptable.
In fact, they are rather memorable. There’s the Taster’s Choice minidrama. The folksy Folgers commercials that show sons coming home from the military to proud families. The yuppy Maxwell House ads trying to steal business from Starbucks. Surge and Mountain Dew spots featuring Generation Xers celebrating extreme sports.
Naegeli-Moody sees a darker side.
“Corporations make it seem like such a wholesome way of life, but it’s not,” she said.
“I’ve had clients that abused caffeine to the point it was causing marital problems,” she said. “There’s the sneakiness in figuring out a way to get the fix. There’s hyperness. It can generate an interruption of your personal life. One of the symptoms of addiction is how absorbed you are with it.”
St. Dennis says caffeine can be addicting for some people.
“In some very susceptible individuals it can cause addiction, but as a general rule, no (caffeine is not addictive),” he said. “But chronic use leads to tolerance which is the start of addiction.”
Bittrick and St. Dennis concur on two points:
Caffeine is not good for kids.
Ingesting too much caffeine - as well as “withdrawing” from it - can produce symptoms that mimic manic-depression and personality disorders. Consuming too much caffeine can also induce panic attacks in those suffering from an anxiety disorder.
“I’ve had patients come in complaining particularly of anxiety where I’m thinking it might be a sign of a mental disorder but come to find out the person is drinking too much caffeine,” St. Dennis said.
“Doctors do need to ask questions (about caffeine consumption) just like they ask questions about alcohol and cigarettes,” Bittrick said.
Ironically, most employers have rules against smoking and drinking on the job, but the coffee break is an American imperative.
In both the private and public-sector workplace, it is often written into personnel rules.
“Think about it,” St. Dennis said. “What other drug have we legislated a right to stop work to take?”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Bridget Sawicki
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CAFFEINE DOSES (IN MILLIGRAMS) Coffee drinks Percolated 110 Drip brewed 150 Instant 66 Decaf brewed 4.5 Instant decaf 2 Espresso (2 oz.) 60-80 Soft drinks (12 oz.) Dr. Pepper 61 Mr. Pibb 57 Mountain Dew 49 Coca-Cola 42 RC Cola 36 Pepsi-Cola 35 Drugs Vivarin Tablets 200 Nodoz 100 Excedrin 65 Vanquish 33 Empirin Compound 32 Anacin 32 Dristan 16 Other Instant/Brewed Tea 45 Cocoa (5 oz.) 13 Chocolate bar 25 Source: Group Health Northwest
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