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

Aug 30 2016

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

August 30th, 2016

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 is really 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 who has 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 cocainefrom 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 we experience 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 his memoir. You can follow him on Twitter: @speele5.

  • Excellent!

    If they continue on this path, there won’t be anything non-addictive left.

    More dangers “The Children” need to be protected from.
    More “bad stuff” to regulate.
    More topics for “experts” to sell their patent solution snake oils.
    More ways to be guilty.
    More chances for the Pharmafia to create expensive “therapies”.
    More sins to tax.

  • NEPAMike

    This piece simply recognizes that semantic changes happen over time and the DSM is a liberal political document. I understand that it’s Peele, and so this is supposed to serve his steadfast position that addiction is a choice and not a biological reality (the Vietnam vets walked away from heroin, after all!). But setting the word games aside, there is a biological reality when it comes to the physical craving felt after withdrawal from each substance. And, yes, heroin does trigger a physical craving and a mental obsession. So does nicotine and, yes, coffee (caffeine) — to some lesser extent than heroin.

  • Stanton Peele

    These two responses represent the range of responses to my views.

    Mike says, “Here goes Peele again, trying to redefine addiction. But narcotics cause real withdrawal! (What about hospital patients, Mike?) Oh, so cigarettes cause withdrawal, and maybe coffee too. (The piece asks these two questions, Mike: which produces worse withdrawal, and how come those pharmacologists couldn’t tell in 1964 that nicotine was addictive, what with all the smoking research being done? – for the record, I labelled smoking addictive in 1975, in Love and Addiction.)”

    Then again, what about gambling, Mike, the only thing called addictive in DSM-5? Withdrawal there? What about sex and love, which DSM-5 explicitly ruled were NOT addictive. Any withdrawal there? Here is I say they produce the worst withdrawal — your thoughts? http://www.peele.net/blog/081215.html

    Then comes my friend Norbert — “they’re labeling everything addictive — har, har!” Norbert, did you get to the end of the piece (it’s not that long) where I say that addiction doesn’t reside in a thing, but is a characteristic of an involvement a person forms? This is going to take some thinking, Norbert, but ask yourself, “Do some people quit heroin more readily than they can a love affair. and what does that say?”

    You can do it, Norbert!

    • Yes, I did.

      The problem is, that nobody in regulatory power cares for individual behavior. All they care about is the question “Can it be labeled addictive?

      If the answer is “Yes”, some paternalistic busybody with an addiction to tax dollars will look for a way to “regulate” it. And apply sin taxes.

  • Swag Valance

    These addictions, I am convinced, are a form of white whine. A First World Problem. Because victimhood has been mistakenly elevated to a competitive sport in many circles of society, having these “pet” addictions is a way of defining your identity has having to endure such cruel hardships in life.

    Who wants to be left out? Privilege is a naughty word these days. “My pain of existence is more valid than yours” is all in vogue now.

    I’ll change my mind when someone does tricks on 6th Street and sells their child into sex slavery to pay for their latte addiction.

  • With wonderfully serendipitous timing, just a few days ago over on Quora I began exploring the question of whether “alcohol addiction” might be far more widespread than most people realize.

    Yes, society (at least US/Euro society) has recognized for LONG time that true alcoholism with heavy, life-destroying levels of drinking is a true addiction and one of the few where sudden quitting may sometimes result in actual death. But because alcohol use in moderation is generally looked on with societal and medical approval, very few moderate drinkers ever actually try to QUIT alcohol altogether.

    What would happen though if alcohol drinking suddenly went through a process similar to what smoking went through in the last 50 years? If it moved to a point where raving fanatics filled City Council chambers calling for bans on drinking everywhere in public because ethyl alcohol is not only a Class 1A Carcinogen — it is ALSO highly volatile!

    When you add up the chemically discrete Class 1A’s in the smoke from an entire cigarette only about half of a single milligram enters the air everyone else is breathing. BUT… if you sit there for an hour sipping at a martini, roughly a FULL GRAM — i.e. a THOUSAND milligrams — of carcinogenic ethyl alcohol will have evaporated into the air and be forcing its merry way down the throats and along the mucous membranes of everyone else in the entire building! (At least if we believe the model for the migration of secondary tobacco smoke that’s causing demands to ban smoking everywhere except the dark side of the moon.)

    What if pressures resulting from that or just from general moral/social animosity toward alcohol were resulting in half or more of drinkers deciding at some point to “just quit for good”? Would they succeed? Would they just exercise a little ordinary willpower and walk away from their favorite tipple forever?

    Or would they suddenly discover that they NEED that glass of wine to “enjoy” dinner or those couple of beers to “really” get into the Superbowl Spirit or that snifter of 20-year-old Scotch to go with their Saturday evening cigar?

    I don’t think we know the answer to that. Just wait till the “Nicotine Nannies” move on to alcohol though… we may find out. And since so many have welcomed the attacks on smokers with open arms, they’ll have also wedged the door quite firmly open for attacks on drinkers.

    – MJM

  • Andrew_C_Bairnsfather

    As usual I liked your analysis. I kind of thought Norbert’s first comment was meant to be humorous so I laughed. Seemed to me he was echoing & extending your “what will they do next” line.

    I have long rejected the attempts people make to promote a scalar view of the world. I believe in KISS but there is a point when the oversimplifiers toss the baby out with the bathwater.

    I have become convinced it’s those who think they are saving us all from addiction who are fundamentally the cause of the grossest ills. As your essays sets out, there is no addiction number line which every item fits on for everyone. However, I have seen graphs which purport to show the addictive nature of various substances, but I also have to take into account your (and others) factoring in the specific circumstances of the individual at that point in time. This is a very hard experiment (or impossible) to conduct. Will Person A fall into a harmful usage pattern when xyz is happening in his/her life? How about when Person A tries the substance but is not living through xyz experience?

    Frankly I don’t think there is any circumstance which I would find tobacco or nicotine enjoyable, or any part of the context/experience. (No offense intended Mr. Zillatron.) Even when I was offered a cigarette ages ago from people I wanted to befriend, I hated how it made me feel and I’m positive I didn’t even take a second puff. And even though former drug czar John Walters claims he can make anyone an addict of anything I think he’s full of baloney; no amount of trying to get me dependent on nicotine is going to work since I found it so awful from the outset.

    However, it does seem to me that there must be some sort of chemical component. Because what else is there? There’s the physical universe (i.e. chemistry/periodic table of elements), then there are those of us who also believe in a spiritual (non-physical) existence. I think you know I am not fearful of discussing spirituality and taking it into account, or at least trying to, but at least for the time being my angle on religion has been to use it to ‘clear the temple’ of prohibitionists.

    Although I do think there is some chemical component to ‘addiction’ to a substance (or feelings from it, or former feelings from it), I have to reject the oversimplification espoused by the current head of NIDA that it boils down to ~ ‘the pleasure center in our brain being hijacked and our free will being taken away.’ NIDA & its ilk are nothing but murk that works against our helping people learn to moderate or quit.

    And at the risk of sounding pedantic, by moderate I mean whatever is seems appropriate to the individual, for some it might mean 1 beer a day, for some it might mean 1 beer per week, for some it might mean three beers a day, etc…

    Am I getting closer to figuring things out? (Since I’m not a scientist by training I’m typically ignored/rejected by those who think I don’t abide by rules of evidence or able to quote peer reviewed studies.)

    However, I don’t view my needing to figure out addiction as necessary to ending drug prohibition. So back to the latter while I applaud others’ efforts to deal with the former.

  • Parmenion59

    In the new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Dr. Reuven Dar of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Psychology found that the intensity of cravings for cigarettes had more to do with the psychosocial element of smoking than with the physiological effects of nicotine as an addictive chemical.

    “These findings might not be popular with advocates of the nicotine addiction theory, because they undermine the physiological role of nicotine and emphasize mind over matter when it comes to smoking,” Dr. Dar says. He hopes this research will help clinicians and health authorities develop more successful smoking cessation programs than those utilizing expensive nicotine patches or gum.

    Up in the air

    Dr. Dar and his colleagues’ conclusions are based on two landmark studies. In the most recent study, he and his colleagues monitored the smoking behavior and craving levels of in-flight attendants, both women and men, who worked at the Israeli airline El Al. Each participant was monitored during two flights — a long flight of 10 to 13 hours in duration, from Tel Aviv to New York, for example; and a two-hop shorter trip from Israel to Europe and back, each leg lasting three to five hours. Using a questionnaire, he sampled craving levels of the attendants throughout the duration of their flights.

    Dr. Dar and his colleagues found that the duration of the flight had no significant impact on craving levels, which were similar for short and long flights. Moreover, craving levels at the end of each short flight were much higher those at the end of the long flight, demonstrating that cravings increased in anticipation of the flight landing, whatever the flight’s total duration. He concluded that the craving effect is produced by psychological cues rather than by the physiological effects of nicotine deprivation.

    No smoking on the Sabbath

    In an earlier 2005 study, Dr. Dar examined smokers who were religious Jews, forbidden by their religion to smoke on the Sabbath. He asked them about their smoking cravings on three separate days: the Sabbath, a regular weekday, and a weekday on which they’d been asked to abstain. Participants were interviewed at the end of each day about their craving levels during that day.

    What Dr. Dar found is that cravings were very low on the morning of the Sabbath, when the smoker knew he would not be able to smoke for at least 10 hours. Craving levels gradually increased at the end of the Sabbath, when participants anticipated the first post-Sabbath cigarette. Craving levels on the weekday on which these people smoked as much as they wanted were just as high as on the day they abstained, showing that craving has little to do with nicotine deprivation.

    Dr. Dar’s studies conclude that nicotine is not addictive as physiological addictions are usually defined. While nicotine does have a physiological role in increasing cognitive abilities such as attention and memory, it’s not an addictive substance like heroin, which creates true systemic and biologically-based withdrawal symptoms in the body of the user, he says.

    Dr. Dar believes that people who smoke do so for short-term benefits like oral gratification, sensory pleasure and social camaraderie. Once the habit is established, people continue to smoke in response to cues and in situations that become associated with smoking. Dr. Dar believes that understanding smoking as a habit, not an addiction, will facilitate treatment. Smoking cessation techniques should emphasize the psychological and behavioral aspects of the habit and not the biological aspects, he suggests.

    • The addiction “meme” was largely pushed as a wedge to open the doors for control using “The Children” as a wedge. Creating and emphasizing the imagery and language of sweet, innocent little children being targeted by the Evil Drug Pushers (i.e. Big Tobacco) allowed Antismokers to go far beyond what they’d achieved with the simple secondhand smoke lies.

      – MJM

  • Parmenion59

    Antismokers tell us that people only smoke because they are ‘addicted to nicotine’, and that most smokers actually want to quit…but most smokers enjoy smoking, and few people want to quit something they enjoy. Nag and frighten them enough though, and you can certainly get them to believe that they should.
    ‘Addiction’ is not a clearly-defined scientific term, and it’s very hard to separate ‘addictions’ from habits.
    Antismokers have to keep pushing ‘addiction’ since they either cannot believe, or cannot admit, that people not only freely choose to smoke… but enjoy it. ‘Addiction’ also works to further stigmatise smokers by portraying us as contemptible junkies. Of course, if you’re smoking out of pure compulsion and aren’t even enjoying it, I would say you might as well quit. After all, if you’re going to do something which increasingly gets you treated like dirt, then you may as well at least get some pleasure from it. But many thousands have quit of their own accord, and many others are smoking moderately, or only at certain times, or switching to e-cigs. I meet these people all the time, but according to antismokers they don’t exist. I personally only smoke when I’m having a drink. Perhaps I don’t exist either.

    The myth of nicotine addiction

    Cigarette cravings result from habit, not addiction

    Nicotine does not cause cigarette addiction

    Niacin is Nicotinic Acid… or nicotine

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