TERRY PRONE: If you need a caffeine ‘fix’ every day, you might be a drug addict

Most readers of this newspaper get their fix before they tackle the front page.

They make a cup of instant coffee, brew a cup of real coffee, or buy a beaker in a coffee shop. Or they get out the teapot and access their caffeine that way.

Of course, they don’t announce themselves, or even perceive themselves, as drug addicts: It’s the taste of the coffee they really like; or the lovely hot container on which to warm up cold hands, these already chilly mornings; or the wonderful smell as it brews, filling the house with promise; or the benefit of the spent coffee grounds to the flower beds outside. 

All of us have good reasons, unrelated to caffeine, for wanting our morning coffee, or
our mid-morning or lunchtime or all-day coffee.

Because remarkably few people want to put their hands up and confess that they’re hooked on a drug.

That’s the fact of it, though. Caffeine reliably delivers a sense of well-being. Each day. Every day. 

As we ingest it, we simply feel better. About ourselves. About the world around us. 

We feel — and measurably are — more intelligent. More sprightly, more up for the day, more energetic, more eager to tackle what’s ahead of us. 

We don’t always credit caffeine for helping us run faster, think better, concentrate more, but it does. 

We just regard the stuff as essential to laying down a decent start to the day.

During the recession, when people sacrificed a great many of their daily luxuries, vente containers of arabica escaped the money-saving list. 

If you need a caffeine ‘fix’ every day, you might be a drug addict 

Customers in coffee shops came with the precise number of coins they needed and averted their eyes from the Danish pastries. That’s some commitment.

For most people, it’s an unconsidered, positive commitment. Nobody drinks coffee to prevent terrifying withdrawal symptoms. 

It’s not like someone quits drinking their morning brew — tea or coffee — and within hours has imaginary creepy crawlies emerging from the skin of their forearms. 

Caffeine withdrawal does not produce delirium tremens. Which is not to say that it does not produce withdrawal symptoms of other kinds, because it seriously does.

In the US, a patient due for surgery is asked if they’ve previously undergone procedures requiring general anaesthetic, and, if the answer is in the affirmative, is then asked: “Did you have any unpleasant side effects when you came out of the anaesthetic?”

If the answer is: “Yes, I had a thumping headache, so bad I cannot begin to describe it to you,” the next query tends to be: “Do you drink a lot of coffee?” 

Another affirmative may produce an offer: “Would the patient like to have caffeine added to their IV in the immediate aftermath of the procedure to prevent withdrawal symptoms?” 

If the answer is yes, in goes the caffeine and the patient experiences no headache after surgery.

Processed caffeine comes mainly, these days, from China, in the form of a bitter-tasting white powder. 

According to self-confessed addict Murray Carpenter, author of 2014’s Caffinated, published by Penguin, it is a drug whose strength is consistently underestimated.

“A sixty-fourth of a teaspoon, the amount in many soft drinks, will give you a subtle boost,” Carpenter writes. 

A sixteenth of a teaspoon, about the amount in twelve ounces of coffee, is a good, solid dose for a habituated user. A quarter teaspoon will lead to physical unpleasantness: Racing heart, sweating, and acute anxiety. A teaspoon will kill you.

It’s not just from coffee and tea that we get our caffeine fix each day. It’s in over-the-counter medications such as Anadin. It’s in chocolate. 

You can even buy a cheap bottle of caffeine pills in the pharmacy without a prescription. 

Caffeinated chewing gum has been around in the US for quite a long time. 

Large consignments of the stuff were purchased by Uncle Sam for his army and navy, one of the reasons being that although it had a tart taste, it nonetheless did the caffeine-delivery job rather better than a cup of coffee.

Research at the time found that because the caffeine in a version of the gum designed for soldiers in a combat zone was absorbed under the tongue, through the mucous membranes, this route delivered full human caffeination in as little as five minutes. 

That’s a great deal faster than coffee. Which made a lot of sense for soldiers driving trucks after a long period under pressure. 

They could chew themselves into wakefulness, without ever having to get off the road to grab a cuppa.

The problem was that, whereas copped-on adults can spot the difference between caffeinated gum and the ordinary kind, children can’t, and while it was on the market, children fell ill by ingesting caffeine they didn’t need and couldn’t handle.

In 2013, the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) in the US, largely prompted by the migration of caffeine into popular brands of chewing gum aimed at ordinary consumers, rather than troops in war zones, announced that it was going to have a look at the safety of adding caffeine to products that didn’t naturally contain it. 

They talked to Wrigley, the company synonymous with chewing gum. No threats, just information-sharing.

If you need a caffeine ‘fix’ every day, you might be a drug addict 

Then, an odd thing happened, and happened quickly. 

Just a week after that initial, informal chat, Wrigley pulled their caffeinated gum off the shelves.

Now, this wasn’t like Johnson & Johnson pulling Tylenol off the market a few decades back, when somebody put cyanide in it to kill people. 

J&J’s admirably expeditious move followed proven deaths. 

Wrigley, on the other hand, seem to have decided the FDA were making good points about endangering children, and so they stopped making and distributing the gum.

The FDA praised them, suggesting that it would be cool and groovy if other manufacturers of artificially caffeinated foodstuffs followed suit. 

They didn’t. They so didn’t.

Manufacturers had copped on to the enormous market for heavily caffeinated products to wake people up and keep them awake. 

In addition, almost all products aimed at slimmers are heavy on caffeine, although no scientific proof exists that caffeine is an effective way to lose weight.

And if you can flog tiny bottles of concentrated caffeine to people who might not have the time to get a coffee or to drink a full can of Coke, then the possibility that it might be purchased by children is not a big spanner thrown into your marketing plans.

On the other hand, British prime minister Theresa May has started to wave a large spanner, in the form of a possible ban on selling of these drinks to children. 

The logistics of such a ban may render it impossible, and none of the energy drinks manufacturers is likely to follow Wrigley’s example.

But as long as caffeine control doesn’t spread to our morning coffee, most of us are probably in favour of moving the Red Bulls away from the ordinary soft drinks and slapping an age limit on them.

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