Regulate Caffeine? No, Thanks!

PetfinderCupShould caffeine become a regulated substance? Not if I have anything to say about it. However, psychologist Jack James at Iceland’s Reykjavik University has other ideas.

James’ editorial in the current issue of the Journal of Caffeine Research carries the title, “Death by Caffeine: How Many Caffeine-Related Fatalities and Near-Misses Must There Be Before We Regulate?” Among other things, he suggests labeling requirements, restrictions on advertising, possible taxation, and age restrictions on the sale of caffeinated products.

James focuses on the toxicity of caffeine in various cases, especially when it comes to energy drinks. He concedes that much of the supporting evidence is anecdotal. He also notes that there’s a “general paucity of systematic data” about the extent of any harm. Therein lies the rub.

Without reliable data, how can policy makers know whether the potential benefits of regulation outweigh the costs? No, scientific information doesn’t have to be perfect before policy makers act. However, policy makers need reliable data to make reasoned decisions. After all, spending money on one regulatory program leaves less for other uses in the public or private sector.

Besides, practically every substance can be toxic if the dose is large enough. This isn’t to say that it’s okay to guzzle gallons of super-caffeinated energy drinks. Nor should people mistakenly think they can cancel out drunkenness with a few cups of coffee.

Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence is not science. Effects in individual cases could result from a placebo effect or even coincidence. Rigorous science requires controlled double-blind experiments that test a specific hypothesis. The ability to reproduce results and peer review add to the reliability of scientific research.

Perhaps more study might be appropriate for certain products. For now, though, I’ll continue to enjoy my coffee, iced tea, and the occasional can of Diet Dr. Pepper.

Remember that chocolate contains caffeine too. Anyone who tries regulating that will face a major rebellion!


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