Will Coffee Give You Cancer (in California)?


Our friends over at Reason TV have a new video asking the attention-grabbing question “Will coffee give you cancer?”

As it turns out, no (unless you’re drinking several thousand cups of coffee a day). But the news earlier this year that the state of California was going to require every coffee shop in the state to post signs warning customers about a cancer risk is, itself, a serious issue. It reinforces a culture of ludicrous overcaution in which every substance arounds us is depicted as a threat, leading regular people with no way of weighing the relative health risk of something that is basically harmless (like drinking a couple of cups of coffee a day) with the risk of something that is actually dangerous (like smoking cigarettes).

My colleague Michelle Minton wrote about the situation in California earlier this year:

…coffee consumption of three to five cups per day is associated with net health benefits, including reduced risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death in the U.S.). But  California’s law does not care about either the relative risks posed by the tiny amounts of acrylamide in coffee or the net risk versus the net benefits.

What the law has done is provide a new opportunity to extract money from California businesses. Environmental and health groups have taken advantage of the fact that anyone can sue a business in an attempt to force them to carry a Prop 65 warning. In 2008 alone, lawyers settled 199 Prop 65 cases, netting them more than $14 million in fees and the state $4.6 million in civil penalties.

As a result, the warnings are just about everywhere. The thresholds are so low that businesses like supermarkets and even apartment buildings have simply taken to posting Prop 65 warnings to cover the entire business. This doesn’t help people avoid risk, but merely tells them that risks are everywhere and unavoidable.

Fortunately, people who care about scientific literacy are starting to push back on this trend more. As Sara Chodosh of Popular Science magazine recently wrote, “California needs to stop saying everything causes cancer.” See also the great content from the Independent Women’s Foum that is part of their project on food freedom.