All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 2001

Affirmative Chemical Action

Schoolchildren Are among the Most Helpless Victims of the Drug War

In my last column I showed that caffeine is the most widely used mind-altering drug in America, that its use is endorsed by the government, and that the public-school system, allied with the beverage industry, has become one of America’s major drug delivery systems. In this column I will show that the popular enthusiasm and political approval of caffeine conflict with the professional judgment of health experts regarding the physiological effects of this drug and with their recommendations regarding its use, especially in children.

Obviously, my critique of the intellectual corruptness of the public-school system’s policy on drugs is not intended as a call for more government control over drugs or schools. Instead, it is intended as a reminder that the fashionable rhetoric about protecting kids and our self-congratulatory posturing as a child-oriented nation conceal a bitter truth: namely, that in the name of protecting children, educators, mental health personnel, and politicians abuse and persecute children, mainly by systematically lying to them.

Before the anti-drug craze, children were told that masturbating would cause them to go blind. Now they are told that taking certain drugs will make them go mad and become violent or commit suicide; that certain other drugs will prevent and cure all these horrors; that some drugs are not drugs; and that they must say “no to drugs,” except Ritalin, which they must take or be expelled from school.

Caffeine: The Experts Speak

Revealingly, in Goodman and Gilman’s The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics (ninth edition)—which is the most widely used textbook of pharmacology in American medical schools—the material about caffeine is placed in a chapter titled “Drug Addiction and Drug Abuse,” under the subheading “Cocaine and Other Psychostimulants.” This material is preceded by discussion of the effects of cocaine and amphetamines, and is followed by material on cannabinoids (marijuana). Regarding Ritalin, discussed under the heading of its chemical name, “methylphenidate,” we learn that “Its pharmacological properties are essentially the same as those of the amphetamines. Methylphenidate also shares the abuse potential of amphetamines.”

Amphetamine is a controlled substance; its possession without a prescription is a criminal offense. It would seem not too much to expect that children compelled to attend classes in drug education as well as those compelled to take Ritalin be given a photocopy of those two sentences.

Popular books on child care also condemn the use of caffeine:

Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, the bible of American parents’ guide to child rearing: “Coffee, tea, cola drinks, and chocolate are not good drinks for children because they contain lots of sugar and the stimulant caffeine.”

Feed Your Kids Well, by Fred Prescott, M.D.: “The five top selling sodas are also loaded with caffeine. Caffeine is an addictive substance, no less than nicotine. In addition, it is a neurostimulant, meaning that it acts on the body like amphetamine: it can cause jitteriness, anxiety, weight loss, and insomnia, all of which can lead to poor school performance.”

The Family Nutrition Book, by William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N.: “Many school age children get squirrelly following a jolt of caffeine-containing cola.”

Considered too young to drink coffee because of its caffeine content, children are offered all the caffeine they want—in school.

Coca-Cola: What’s in a Name?

For children, the primary source of caffeine is soft drinks, and among soft drinks, the most popular brand is Coca-Cola. The name “Coca-Cola” was trademarked in 1886. For the next 20 years, until the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, the drink so named contained cocaine and was advertised as a therapeutic agent against “melancholy.”

Why did cocaine in Coca-Cola pose no national or international threat between 1886 and 1906? Because it was legal and was not a scapegoat: its persecution yielded no political profits to demagogues, and its distribution was not in the hands of drug lords.

Now it is illegal and a scapegoat—a “dangerous drug,” a stigma term masquerading as a scientific designation. A drug is an inanimate object and therefore cannot be dangerous. Only people who use or misuse a drug can be dangerous, as can also people who neither use or misuse drugs. (Hitler neither smoked nor drank; in fact, he was a health fanatic.) Labeling a drug “dangerous” is a political act, inviting and justifying political consequences, in exactly the same way as labeling a person as “dangerous” is a political act.

Since the end of World War II and especially since the demise of communism in the Soviet Union, cocaine has become America’s favorite scapegoat. Like the Inquisition, the war against coca in Colombia, sponsored and supported by the United States, is not a metaphoric battle. Yet the best-known American trademark and the world’s most popular soft drink contains the word “coca.” The word commemorates the fact that but for the coca leaf there would never have been a flourishing pre-European civilization in the Andes.

How does the Coca-Cola Company deal with these embarrassing historical and pharmacological facts? About cocaine, the company’s Web site ( is, understandably, silent. Regarding caffeine, it informs the reader: “While many soft drinks are caffeine-free, some contain a small amount of caffeine as part of the flavor profile . . . . The caffeine that is added to Coca-Cola classic, diet Coke and the other products in which it is used is for flavor purposes only. We use only the amount necessary to achieve the appropriate optimum flavor profile for the particular product sold” (emphasis added). The truth is that caffeine is an odorless and tasteless substance. The Coca-Cola Company’s claim that caffeine is added to the drink to enhance its flavor is a deliberate deception, more serious than any of the deceptions of which the tobacco companies were accused. I say this because the effects of smoking on health have been recognized for centuries and there never were any cigarette vending machines in schools, whereas the effects of caffeine on the health of children are generally unacknowledged and there are cola vending machines in schools.

Because medical and school personnel are now agents of the state, and because children are more vulnerable than adults, it is not surprising that they are among the most helpless victims of the war against drugs as well as the war for drugs.

  • Dr. Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) was a Psychiatrist, academic, and champion of individual rights. He devoted much of his life to campaigning against many aspects of conventional psychiatry, in particular involuntary psychiatric treatment and commitment.