Starbucks Warns that Coffee Causes Cancer

By Cheryl Hohl

Sign in California coffee shop: photo from (

Seattle Times article by Seattle Times editorial board:

Judge Elihu Berle in Los Angeles ruled in March that coffee shops are required to warn customers about a supposed cancer risk from drinking coffee. The basis for his ruling is Proposition 65, a California state law that demands companies to either remove carcinogens from their products or warn customers about them. As of now, the requirement for coffee warnings is being disputed due to a lack of scientific evidence that drinking coffee is really a significant risk factor for cancer.

This warning sign is present in all California Starbucks:

To paraphrase, the toxic chemical acrylamide is present in Starbucks products. The problem is that the cancer risk from acrylamide is actually negligible and the benefits from drinking coffee in moderation outweigh any potential risks. So then, the sign is misleading for a number of reasons. Primarily, the word “WARNING” in large text and all caps at the top of the poster makes the message sound a lot more urgent than it really is. Further, Starbucks informs its customers of the presence and danger of acrylamide but fails to mention the remaining facts of the case; that is, the assertion supported by a myriad of studies that coffee is okay to drink. Also, the sign directs customers to more information from government domains on the internet so that they can do their own research. These links may provide evidence of the dangers of drinking coffee, or lack thereof, but would it not be easier and more informative for the sign to simply and clearly state all of the information? If the .gov URLs say coffee is not dangerous, then Starbucks is purposely leading customers to believe there is a cancer risk by only clearly displaying that side of the story.

The Seattle Times article discusses recent proposed updates to the cancer warnings and clarifies that drinking coffee is safe, citing the reliable World Health Organization. Although the article undoubtedly believes the warnings in Starbucks to be ridiculous and unnecessary, it still acknowledges that the Proposition 65 law is well-meaning. It also informs the reader of a new proposal by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to change the warning to say that the chemicals produced while making coffee “do not pose a significant risk of cancer.” Another point that the article addresses is the issue of over-warning; it is important for consumers to be aware of scientific facts to ensure that all other and future warnings are taken seriously.

Ultimately, the Seattle Times article is effective because it provides more comprehensive data about coffee’s connection to cancer and reviews why the Starbucks signs are misleading. While the hope is that consumers will research their health choices on their own, that is not always the case; for that reason, it is imperative that the warnings in coffee shops convey the most truthful information possible.