Study: Coffee May Reduce Risk of Death. (Downside: You're Addicted, and It Makes You Work Harder.)

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Today the Wall Street Journal offers one of those bad-things-are-good-for-you stories everyone loves. This one's about coffee.

This has been done before by WebMD ("Coffee: The New Health Food?") and others, but the WSJ story adds to a list of several diseases coffee may prevent (including several cancers, Parkinson's, and tooth decay) the startling claim, via a 20-year medical study: That "the more coffee [study subjects] drank, the less likely they were to die during that period from any cause." ("Immortality is mine!" tweets Peter Suderman.)

Expert testimony suggests that previous studies gave coffee a bad rap because they failed to adjust for behaviors that often accompany coffee-drinking -- like smoking cigarettes. Once controls were added, coffee didn't come out so bad.

But these experts are a bit cautious, as you might expect, about verifying the health claims ("everything is cloaked in 'mays'").

One says the "only way to draw firm conclusions about something like coffee is through experimental trials in which some subjects are exposed to measured doses and others get a placebo," an experiment more likely to be hilarious than useful, as placebo subjects break down and admit they've been sneaking off to Starbucks when the headaches and inability to follow conversations became too much for them.

We can see why this story, and all stories like it, would be popular. Every week seems to bring a grim new health warning about some substance we ingest regularly (e.g., "Too much of red meat, fish may cause Alzheimer's"). In such an environment, even guarded claims for health benefits in coffee (or beer, or unemployment, fat thighs, or anxiety, or anything else we were worried about) will come as a blessed relief.

With all respect to the author and the good doctors, though, a lightly-mentioned factor impinges on all of this: caffeine is a drug, and we who use it are mostly drug addicts. Though it doesn't rot your nose like cocaine, or make you too pleased with yourself to properly respond to the nagging of bosses and parents like marijuana, coffee strongly effects behavior, especially in the long term.

That our nanny state has not moved against it is attributable to a result of which it approves: it makes us more productive. Americans are generally in a frenzy to do work, and it never lets up: U.S. non-farm productivity has just risen at its fastest pace in six years. Terror of joblessness may contribute, but we suspect caffeine addiction plays a large part. Were it not for cultural accident, we might be munching khat leaves at our jobs instead of drinking lattes, and that would suit the authorities just fine, so long as we squeezed out a little more product every year.

In a sane world this pace of production would be considered a pressing health menace, and workaholics remanded to rehabilitation facilities. But ours is not a sane world. And so we sooth ourselves with hardly-proven claims that our drug is good for us, and brew another pot so we can rise to sufficiently manic state to do our ever-increasing work.

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