Coffee – a health risk or a health promoter? “Private attorneys general” or the British Journal of Medicine?

There have been a variety of media reports of late regarding the health effects of coffee. Two almost simultaneous news articles demonstrate how our regulatory environment can lead to puzzling contradictions. These same articles illuminate the vast reach and potential impact of California’s Prop. 65.

For those not familiar with Prop. 65, it is a California regulatory scheme whereby producers and distributors of any products and foods used or consumed in California must apply a cancer/birth defect warning on their products if they contain any of 800 different identified substances in levels that might lead to an exposure in excess of the mandated permissible levels. The regulations allow any attorney in California to act as a “private attorney general” to bring suit against anyone who has not properly warned. These suits can lead to injunctive relief, fines and penalties, and perhaps most importantly, an award of plaintiff’s (but not defendant’s) attorneys’ fees.

As a habitual coffee drinker, I was pleased to see that Sam Meredith of CNBC reported on November 23rd about a study from the University of Southampton, published in the British Journal of Medicine, that a review of some 200 previously published medical studies led the authors to conclude that drinking 3 to 4 cups of coffee each day was “more often associated with benefit than harm” from a health perspective. Consuming coffee can reduce the risk of numerous ailments from heart disease to dementia, and even some cancers it is reported.

Yet literally the next day, Bob Egelko in the San Francisco Chronicle reported that 7- Eleven had just obtained court approval of a settlement of a case brought against it alleging that their sale of prepared coffee without warnings was a violation of Proposition 65 as coffee contains an unsafe level of acrylamide, a substance identified as a human carcinogen by the State of California. 7-Eleven had apparently decided that it was wiser to settle this case for $900,000 than risk a court trial on the issue of whether or not consuming coffee truly presents a cancer risk to consumers in the Golden State. No doubt much of the settlement will go to Raphael Metzger, plaintiffs’ counsel in this matter.

The settlement will thus have the effect of giving Mr. Metzger more resources to continue prosecuting the same case against Starbucks and many other defendants that have been sued in the same case. If Starbucks wins its case, presumably customers will not see a Prop. 65 warning plaque on the wall behind their favorite barista, nor a Prop. 65 warning on the new Holiday Season cups. If Starbucks loses its case, those warnings may join the legions of other such warnings that have proliferated across the state. One would be left to wonder whether the citizens of California would be rendered more safe by such warnings, or instead as the University of Southampton and the British Journal of Medicine seem to feel, safer by drinking more coffee?

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