Can Coffee Kill You?

Photograph by Martin Soeby/Gallery Stock

Scribblers like me can’t resist coffee news. Scientists toil for months—presumably in windowless labs full of microscopes and pipettes—to collect, sort, and interpret mountains of data about the health effects of the world’s most popular drug and publish the results in meticulous detail in a peer-reviewed journal. And, after downing probably a little more than our share of the 400 million cups of coffee Americans drink every day, we spring into action, or at least sit down and type out pandering headlines like:

• “Coffee—A Cancer Culprit?” (Newsweek, 1981)
• “Is Caffeine Bad for You?” (Newsweek, 1982)
• “Grounds to Give Up Coffee?” (Los Angeles Times, 1990)
• “Demon Coffee Bean?” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1995)
• “The Latest on Coffee? Don’t Worry. Drink Up” (New York Times, 1995)
• “Jittery? Peevish? Can’t Sleep? What Are You Drinking?” (New York Times, 2004)
• “Coffee as a Health Drink?” (New York Times, 2006)
• “Too Young for Coffee? (Boston Globe, 2007)
• “Can Caffeine Help Prevent Diabetes?” (Montreal Gazette, 2010)
• “Can Coffee, Tea Lower Brain Cancer Risk?”(USA Today, 2010)
• “Ah, Good for You to the Last Drop?” (Washington Post, 2011) … wouldn’t you like to know.

Readers can’t seem to get enough. They need their coffee-news fix on a cyclical basis. Atop the New York Times’ most e-mailed list as I write this: “Coffee Drinkers May Live Longer.” The latest frenzy is over a study in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Association of Coffee Drinking with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality,” which tracked 229,119 men and 173,141 women aged 50 to 71 for 13 years and found that when adjusting for confounding factors such as tobacco smoking and … see, you started to zone out, didn’t you? Maybe you scanned down the page for the part that says “COFFEE=GOOD” so you’d know how to feel when ordering a venti whole milk vanilla latte?

Well, you’ve left yourself vulnerable to our next move, the instant revision. See: “No, drinking coffee probably won’t make you live longer,” currently bouncing around Twitter courtesy of the Washington Post. In the instant revision, we qualify our previous simplifications (e.g., “Coffee buzz: Java drinkers live longer” in the Washington Post) by pointing out, for instance, that when researchers isolated coffee consumption as a single variable … wait, where are you going?

By now, you’re probably ready to throw up your hands at the whole thing. We’re here to help with that, too:

• “Wake up and smell the controversy” (Daily News of Los Angeles, 1999)
• “So What Is the Truth About Coffee?” (Daily Mail, 2004)
• “Coffee Is Good for You Except When It Isn’t” (Philadelphia Tribune, 2008)

And finally, for the coup de grâce, we point out the absurdity of our own dance. You’re welcome.