By Patrick Hruby
When future talking-monkey archaeologists sift through the detritus of postapocalyptic America, they would do well to ignore the usual cultural Rosetta Stones – the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, seven seasons and counting of “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”
They should focus instead on a single artifact: the AeroShot caffeine inhaler.
Sleek and plastic, the size of a lip balm tube, the AeroShot is the brainchild of David Edwards, a Harvard professor of biomedical engineering who also invented breathable chocolate. (Don’t ask.) The AeroShot contains a puff of lime-flavored caffeine powder; one squeeze, and it dispenses about 40 mg of the drug in your mouth, like an asthma inhaler.
A startup product recently released in the Boston area, the AeroShot already has drawn the ire of Sen. Charles E. Schumer. In December, the New York Democrat expressed concern that the inhaler would be used as a “party enhancer” and asked the Food and Drug Administration to review the safety and legality of selling it to children.
In doing so, Mr. Schumer overlooked the obvious: When it comes to the nation’s predilection for energy-boosting enhancement – at parties, at the office or anywhere in between, for young and old alike – the horse has long since left the barn, if only to lap up a double espresso at the neighboring Starbucks. (Speaking of which, the coffee bar chain briefly pilot-tested its own caffeine inhaler in 2006, one with mint flavor instead of lime.)
“At the time we came up with the AeroShot, we were looking at breathable coffee, breathable vitamins, the most high-value ingredient the product could have,” Mr. Edwards said. “We came up with energy. There is a big demand for energy in the United States.”
One nation under a buzz
America, the land of the free. America, home of the amped. From the 24-ounce Cafe Americano to the 64-ounce Mountain Dew Double Gulp, from ubiquitous coffee shops to the widespread use of the prescription drug Ritalin (read: legal speed) as a campus study aid, we are one nation under a buzz, indivisible from our next fix, with 5-Hour Energy shots and caffeine-spiked chewing gum for all.
To understand the depths of our perked-up desire, consider:
• The average American ingests as much as 300 mg of caffeine a day, equal to three No-Doz pills;
• From June 2010 to June 2011, amid ongoing economic malaise, energy drink sales rose a whopping 31.6 percent.
• At an Army lab in Natick, Mass., military scientists reportedly have taken time out from developing Global Positioning System-guided helicopters to test and develop … caffeinated meat.
Or, just visit a Starbucks.
Once upon a time – say, the 1950s – there was the standard, 5-ounce cup o’ Joe, containing about 70 mg to 100 mg of caffeine. Quaint. In the here and now, the standard16-ounce cup of regular Starbucks coffee contains 330 mg of the same substance.
“There are two dark, black liquids that run this country,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Oil and coffee. Walk down the street in any major city at lunch hour. You just see coffee and cell phones.”
It has always been thus. The American Revolution began with the symbolic – and physical – dumping of English tea, which ultimately was usurped in the national diet by coffee, which means our Founding Fathers essentially traded one caffeinated drink for another, more strongly caffeinated drink.
According to historian David T. Courtwright, American per capita coffee consumption rose from three pounds per year in 1830 to eight pounds per year by 1859. Today, the National Coffee Association reports that the number of 18- to 39-year-olds who drink coffee daily jumped almost 10 percent year-over-year in 2011.
Remember, that’s in a country where about 90 percent of the adult population already ingests caffeine on a daily basis. A country where all of the coffee sold at our 10,000-plus Starbucks locations amounts to less than 4 percent of the domestic market for brewed coffee.
Is it any wonder that coffee is the world’s second-most valuable commodity, behind only oil?
Beyond java, we have caffeinated lip balm. Caffeinated sunflower seeds. Caffeinated soap. We have caffeine mixed with gobs of sugar – that tasty Frappuccino isn’t sweet on its own – and with all sorts of other chemicals, energy drink mystery ingredients like taurine, guarana and L-carnitine. We even have something called the “5150 Juice Syringe,” available online, which basically allows you to squirt an extra helping of liquid caffeine into whatever you’re already drinking.
The surest cultural signs our fair republic has become akin to a coffee-and-greenie-fueled Major League Baseball clubhouse, circa 1975?
(a) Vice-free, clean-living Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow endorses an energy drink.
(b) Elite Northwest Washington private school Sidwell Friends – where the Obama daughters go to school – has its own coffee bar.
(c) We don’t just drink vodka. We drink vodka mixed with the up-all-night energy drink Red Bull – because even our downers need uppers.
“In the 1960s, a lot of families, and mine was one of them, wouldn’t let their kids drink soft drinks before noon,” Mr. Thompson said. “I remember as a child being at a friend’s house for a sleepover. The next morning, he gets a Coke out of the fridge at 8:30 a.m. It seemed almost criminal. And now we have caffeine inhalers.”
The Big C
In the books “World of Caffeine” and “The Caffeine Advantage,” co-author Bennett Weinberg dubs the titular compound the “hallmark drug of our time.” Lauding caffeine’s ability to help us work harder, think more clearly and even feel a greater sense of well-being, he sounds a bit like pumped-up former baseball slugger Jose Canseco discussing anabolic steroids.
This is no coincidence.
Caffeine works in the body by blocking a chemical called adenosine, which signals tiredness to the brain. Less adenosine, less fatigue. Blocking adenosine also causes the body to release more adrenaline, producing the famed caffeine buzz.
In other words, the Big C is a performance-enhancing drug – albeit one that’s just as useful for office workers as professional athletes.
“Suppose you’re working in computer technology,” Mr. Weinberg said. “Caffeine ramps up spatial reasoning. It relieves boredom at repetitive tasks. It’s a mental booster, helping us accomplish the things that more and more are demanded of us in life.”
The history of caffeine consumption is more or less the history of the modern world, according to Mr. Weinberg and co-author Bonnie Bealer. Prior to the 1700s, Europeans drank copious amounts of beer – even for breakfast – because water was largely unsafe.
With the widespread adoption of coffee and tea, however, Western civilization swapped its daylong, semi-drunk alcoholic stupor for energy, alertness, attentiveness and sociability. One result? Intellectuals gathered in coffee shops, spawning (among other things) the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
“Visit churches in Europe, and the tour guides will constantly point out that so-and-so fell off the rafters,” Mr. Weinberg said. “The reason they fell off is that they were drunk all the time.
“When caffeine swept over Europe, it changed the nature of society. It gave people a way to control and harness their energies, helped to initiate the industrial economy. That requires a different kind of discipline and mental focus than agrarian work.”
As for today? We’re stressed and squeezed by economic turmoil in a hypercompetitive global economy that places a premium on knowledge and mental-task completion. We’re surrounded by round-the-clock entertainment, stimulated at every turn. We’re a nation of working fathers and mothers, strapped for family time. We’re an older generation of baby boomers who refuse to dodder into our golden years and a younger cohort of millennials who keep our smart phones bedside.
In short, we need caffeine – and other energy boosters – more than ever. The rise of Starbucks corresponds with the rise of the Internet.
“What’s really boosted this up in the past 20 years is that now everybody is connected to a portable transmission and reception device, expected and available to be working all the time,” Mr. Thompson said. “It used to be you went home at 5:30, then got into the office the next morning and had messages. Now, you’re constantly checking email. Our lifestyles need stimulants to keep up with things.”
Without caffeine, Mr. Weinberg argues, modern life would be slower. Sluggish. Altogether drearier. Collectively, we would drag a lot more and accomplish a lot less. And that, in turn, raises a question.
Are we hopelessly hooked?
Consider an executive X who gets up at 5:30 a.m. every day, proposes Mr. Thompson. “Could she or he not do their job without a certain dosage of caffeine a day? If the answer to that is no, that’s an interesting thing to consider.”
In 2009, a man who claimed to have found a mouse in his Mountain Dew can filed a lawsuit against PepsiCo, which owns the brand. As part of its defense, attorneys for the company recently argued that the soft drink – a favorite energy-booster among exam-cramming students and up-all-night video game players everywhere, a neon-green liquid countless Americans willingly and happily pour into their stomachs – would have dissolved the dead rodent’s carcass into a “jellylike substance.”
Yuck. Such is the downside of perking ourselves up.
A recent report from the White House Office of Drug Control expressed concern about college students illegally taking prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin to remain awake and ultra-focused while studying. News reports anecdotally suggest that similar drug abuse is taking place among young professionals.
Moreover, too much caffeine can be bad for you. While every individual has a different tolerance for the drug, experts agree that ingesting more than 500 mg a day can result in anxiety, irritability, headaches, sleeplessness, diarrhea and other health problems. In some cases, it can cause abnormal heart rhythms, which can be dangerous for people with cardiac conditions.
According to Dr. Mary Claire O’Brien, an associate professor at Wake Forest’s Baptist Medical Center, the medical community is concerned about increasing caffeine consumption among children and adolescents, particularly via energy drinks. A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that emergency room visits related to adverse reactions to energy drinks increased tenfold from 2005 to 2009. (A caveat: 44 percent of the visits involved patients combining energy drinks with drugs or alcohol.)
A 2011 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics said that energy drinks have “no place in the diet” of children.
“If you suggested putting an espresso machine in a middle school, people would think you are out of your mind,” said Dr. O’Brien, who is on the editorial board of the Journal of Caffeine Research. “But people don’t think twice about them consuming energy drinks and soft drinks.
“There is concern about caffeine being a stimulant, and that it’s not clear what the long-term effects of high levels of caffeine on the pediatric and adolescent brain will be. The human brain is not effectively hard-wired until the age of 25.”
Echoing Mr. Schumer’s concern about the AeroShot’s potential use as a party drug, the University of New Hampshire considered banning on-campus energy drink sales this year, fearing students were mixing the drinks with alcohol. In the face of student displeasure, however, school administrators backed down.
Mr. Weinberg said some things never change.
“There’s been a constant back and forth over this since the beginning, a moral panic,” he said. “It goes back to the beginning. When the first coffee shops opened in Yemen [in the early 1500s], they were banned. Right away. And then the Sultan of Cairo overturned that ban.”
Of course he did. Almost 500 years before the introduction of the caffeine inhaler, the sultan had something in common with contemporary Americans. He was a coffee drinker. He needed his fix.