Asking a New Yorker whether they’ll give up their morning coffee during their commute is likely to elicit only one response – laughter.
News broke on Thursday that a California judge had ruled coffee companies should carry cancer warnings on their products after an eight-year legal battle with big coffee. Coffee companies, led by Starbucks, had argued that the levels of acrylamide, a known carcinogen, present in their coffee were insignificant and outweighed by health benefits.
Related: It’s official! Coffee causes cancer (except when it doesn’t)
But the defendants “failed to satisfy their burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health”, Elihu Berle, a superior court judge, ruled. “While plaintiff offered evidence that consumption of coffee increases the risk of harm to the fetus, to infants, to children and to adults, defendants’ medical and epidemiology experts testified that they had no opinion on causation.”
Harm to fetuses, infants, children, adults? Sounds scary. But not to New Yorkers. Three thousand miles away from the California court the reaction ranged from “meh” to “fuhgeddaboudit”.
“California!” said Jarrett Boor, an architect winging his way to work on 8th Avenue in Manhattan. “They put warning labels on everything.” He said it was good in some cases and that the public should know when products are dangerous. “But everything causes cancer: cellphones, GMO foods. I’m not giving up my coffee,” he snorted.
New Yorkers do, apparently, drink a ridiculous amount of coffee. A survey by health data website Massive Health calculated the city was running on 6.7 times as much coffee per person as other cities (San Franciscans, by contrast, eat 4.4 times as many brussels sprouts). Given the amount of joe coursing through a New Yorker’s system it’s little wonder that the city’s hopped-up workers don’t seem too worried by California’s warnings.
According to a Harvard study, roughly 62% of Americans drink coffee every day, an all-time high. And, despite the fly California has dropped in the nation’s latte, two decades of research suggests that coffee is good for us, helping to reduce the risk of illnesses ranging from cancer to heart disease to Alzheimer’s.
One common complaint among caffeine-loving New Yorkers on Friday was that they were sick of the ever-changing buffet of health-related coffee news.
“The last public health statement I saw was coffee was good for you. It reduces hypertension,” said Marge Wetzler, wearily waiting for a medium iced latte in Gregory’s Coffee in midtown Manhattan. “Now it’s bad for you? I just don’t buy that.” She would, however, continue to buy her morning coffee.
“Whatever,” said James Warren, a bike courier picking up a Starbucks between stops. “It’s bad for you, it’s good for you, it’s bad for you, it’s good for you. It’s kinda irritating,” he said before dashing out into traffic.
New Yorkers’ attitudes were echoed 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles.
“I just don’t think it would stop me,” Jen Bitterman, a digital marketing technologist, told the Associated Press. “I love the taste, I love the ritual, I love the high, the energy, and I think I’m addicted to it.”
Lawyer Darlington Ibekwe agreed. “It’s like cigarettes. Like, damn, now I’ve got to see this?” he said. “Dude, I’m enjoying my coffee.”
Berle’s ruling could spell bad news for coffee companies. The third phase of the California trial, brought by non-profit organization the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, will determine any civil penalties that coffee companies must pay.
The potential penalties are massive, if unlikely, with a fine of up to $2,500 per person exposed each day over eight years. California has 40 million residents.
While it’s extremely doubtful that coffee will face the same kinds of penalties slapped on the tobacco companies, the case does open up the possibility of a world without coffee.
“There would have to be an alternative,” said Ali Philippides, a product manager at the Daily Beast. Commuting into work with her ridiculously cute corgi, Fig, Philippides was gripping a Starbucks cappuccino and looked a little shaken by the cancer news.
“I used to drink a lot of Diet Coke and swapped for seltzer,” she said thoughtfully. But could she give up coffee? As she paused to think for a moment you could almost see the post-apocalyptic dystopia of a coffee-free New York reflected in her eyes. Riots on the L train, Union Square on fire – a city mad with withdrawal. Fig looked up at her with concern.
“Could I give up coffee?” she repeated. “No.”
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