First it was too hot, then it was too icy, now it causes cancer. Thanks to a judge’s ruling last week, California coffee lovers may soon be seeing dire warnings about cancer risks in their favorite coffeehouses. But is concern for cancer really what’s brewing here? Of course not.
It’s jackpot justice.
I checked with Science News, which offered an even-handed review of the research to date. When coffee beans are roasted, they produce the compound acrylamide. Some studies, reported Science News writer Erika Engelhaupt, found increased cancer risk in mice and rats when fed acrylamide with doses between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than levels people would be exposed to in food. But there haven’t been any strong studies that prove that acrylamide causes cancer in humans.
“Most experts are going to look at the risk of acrylamide in coffee and conclude that this is not something that’s going to have a meaningful impact on human health,” said Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. Ms. Engelhaupt also cites a review of more than 1,000 studies by a working group of scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO found no consistent link between drinking coffee and more than 20 types of cancers.
So if there’s no link to cancer, then what’s with the warning labels? The Council for Education and Research on Toxics (the side bringing the lawsuit), their lawyers, and groups and individuals like them make their living through frivolous lawsuits that take advantage of California’s Prop. 65 – a law that allows private citizens and organizations to file lawsuits against businesses they claim aren’t fully complying with warning labels.
The labels are a ruse for what they really want, a payout which in this case is $2,500 for every person exposed to the chemical since 2002. Let’s see – there are 39.5 million people living in California, about 73 percent are adults, and about 83 percent drink coffee according to the National Coffee Association — multiply that number by $2,500. I don’t know if my calculator has that many digits to do the math – but it doesn’t matter in any case. It’s the settlement from the shakedown that counts. In 2016, businesses paid $30.1 million in Prop. 65 settlement payouts alone and of that total, a whopping 72 percent or $21.6 million went to attorneys’ fees according to the Center for Accountability in Science. Our colleague Walter Olson at Cato writes that these tremendous payouts are “…the very motor that keeps the law going.”
So when ordering that next cup of coffee, don’t worry too much about cancer. Do worry that you could be rewarding lawsuit abusers and their lawyers.
To paraphrase the wise words of Senator S.I. Hayakawa, “Give me a coffee, but hold the lawsuit.”*
*Actual quote: “So I will say it with relish. Give me a hamburger but hold the lawsuit.” S. I. Hayakawa
Rowena Itchon is Senior Vice President at Pacific Research Institute