Which Is More Addictive, Coffee or Nicotine? If You’re Asking, You Can’t Understand the Answer

By Stanton Peele

(the influence)

What does it mean to label something addictive, and how can we suddenly decide something is addictive where previously it was not? After all, isn’t addiction a biological marker in our brain?

It seems that Time has just recognized that coffee is addictive, to judge from its lead article in its recent (August 29) mailing to subscribers: Blame Your Genes For Your Coffee Addiction (based on this recent study).

What does that mean? People don’t die from drinking coffee. But some people do find their coffee habits harmful, and decide to quit. What’s that like? I mused over this in 2010 while watching Morning Joe, as I described in the Huffington Post at the time.

Here’s what I wrote back then:

Sting has given up coffee, “because I’m addicted to it,” he said on the Morning Joe show. Everyone laughed. Mika Brzezinski opened a package of Starbucks and waved it under his nose, then ordered coffee for him, which Sting refused.

“How ridiculous,” we think. “Coffee, addictive? What will they think of next?”

Let’s dial back to 1964—the Surgeon General’s Report (SGR), Smoking and Health. You know, the one that banned smoking; well, it made all sane people decide that they were glad they didn’t smoke, or that they would quit.

The 1964 SGR revealed smoking was addictive, right? Not quite. Cancer-causing, but not addictive. No, it didn’t fail to say tobacco was addictive. It said: “tobacco is not addictive but only habituating.”

Tobacco was not addictive, SGR concluded, because: (a) it isn’t intoxicating; (b) it creates a desire but not a compulsion to continue; (c) smokers don’t increase their dosages; (d) it doesn’t create physical dependence, only psychic dependence; (e) it is not an anti-social drug, but only harms the individual.

“The tobacco habit should be characterized as an habituation rather than an addiction, in conformity with accepted World Health Organization definitions,” said the 1964 SGR. “Besides tobacco, the use of caffeine in coffee, tea, and cocoa is the best example in American culture.”

The Surgeon General did finally declare tobacco addictive in a separate 1988 report entitled, well, Nicotine Addiction. Smoking and Health was 387 pages; Nicotine Addiction was 618 pages—see, that shows nicotine isreally addictive! But how did it take a quarter-century for the world’s scientists to discover what everyone now knows? More than that— haven’t people been using tobacco for centuries?

You can see addiction in people’s brains, with MRIs, can’t you? God made tobacco addictive, right? Only communists and tobacco capitalists say it’s not addictive. They must have bought off the Surgeon General and World Health Organization pharmacologists!

Let’s do a mind experiment: Suppose we discovered coffee caused cancer, and everyone’s doctor (everyone whohas a doctor) told them to quit. Many people would struggle—and some would fail. Coffee-drinking rates would drop to perhaps half, with many of the remaining coffee drinkers being those who have fewer life alternatives and support systems.

Wait—that’s what happened with cigarettes!

Then they would drag Starbuck executives—and Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski—in front of Congressional committees to embarrass them for their crazy claims that coffee wasn’t addictive.

Thank God coffee is good for you, so we don’t have to quit. But, wait—if it’s addictive for some, like Sting, doesn’t that mean it’s bad for you?

This is twisting my brain too much. I’m going back to those lists which tell you: “This drug is addictive; this drug is not.” I know, I know, they just moved tobacco—and cocaine—from one column to the other in the 1980s, followed by marijuana.

What will they do next—put video games, gambling, and binge eating in the addiction column? That’s crazy!


All right, enough of my HuffPo sarcasm.

Here’s the bottom line: Addiction is a constantly shifting cultural concept, not a biological entity. In the 19th century,alcohol was considered addictive, opiates not. More recently came the nicotine, cocaine and marijuana redefinitions, followed by video games, gambling (the only thing declared addictive in the psychiatric diagnostic manual, DSM-5), and eating and food (now considered addictive by the AMA as well as Mika Brzezinski).

And what about sex and love?

Although it is true that labeling something addictive is a politically and socially symbolic act, it is also true that what weexperience as addictive in a given time and place is determined by cultural beliefs, as I showed in The Meaning of Addiction. Meanwhile, the moving target of addiction is changing more rapidly now than at any time in history.

We will reach the point, eventually, where we will recognize that things aren’t, in themselves, addictive. Addiction is an attachment an individual forms to an object or involvement. As Archie Brodsky and I put it in Love and Addiction:

“Addiction is not a chemical reaction—addiction is an experience, one which grows out of an individual’s subjective response to something that has special meaning for him, from which he seeks safety that nothing else provides.”


Stanton Peele is a columnist for The Influence. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life.  He has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. He is currently working on an e-book: How to Use Drugs. You can follow him on Twitter: @speele5.


One response to “Which Is More Addictive, Coffee or Nicotine? If You’re Asking, You Can’t Understand the Answer

  1. Maybe addiction isn’t always a chemical reaction, but it does happen. It’s the reaction between chemicals in the brain and chemicals in the drug. Which would explain why some people become addicted to alcohol and most do not.

    But there doesn’t have to be a drug involved to trigger a chemical reaction in the brain that becomes an addiction. Which would explain why some people are addicted to stability — will do anything to obtain and retain it — and why some people are addicted to risk and adventure.


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