NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 15, 2006

Caffeine is a mild stimulant that restores mental alertness or wakefulness during fatigue or drowsiness, but despite its side effects, it is not an addictive substance, say the authors of a report published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

While caffeine consumption may appear to cause the same effects as addictive drugs -- a built up tolerance to side-effects, and withdrawal symptoms when usage stops -- it differs because addiction -- psychological dependence -- entails compulsive engagement in a behavior with negative consequences.  According to the authors, caffeine does not meet the requirements.  Indeed:

  • Caffeine, overall, poses no threat to individuals or society.
  • There is rarely a strong compulsion to use; more correctly the pattern of use can be described as a dedicated habit.
  • Often, reinforcing effects may not be caffeine per se, but rather in coffee, for example, the pleasurable aroma and taste, as well as the social environment that usually accompanies.
  • Treatment and avoidance of symptoms of withdrawal, when they do occur, is easily accomplished by ingesting successively smaller doses of caffeine over about a week-long period.

Additionally, in animal studies that permit analysis of caffeine on the brain, levels approximating human consumption do not activate brain reward circuits as do classic stimulants such as cocaine, amphetamines and nicotine.

While caffeine may feel addictive, say the authors, overall, it does not meet the scientific definition of an addictive substance.

Source: Sally Satel, "Is Caffeine Addictive? -- A Review of the Literature," American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, October/December 2006.


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