There is something bizarre about the media’s unhealthy obsession with the health merits of coffee. Now this is one case where I truly believe the media are just delivering what consumers want from them. And I’ve already written about this subject at length. But a prominent article in this month’s Wine Spectator by Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World, prompted further questions for its ironic double standard.

The article is titled A New Year’s Coffee Resolution. In it, Mr. Pendergrast professes to have a New Year’s resolution to drink more coffee. Why? Because he cites many of the latest medical studies showing that coffee might not be bad for you — it might even be good for you. He writes how coffee provides anti-oxidants … and how “it may also help prevent Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, liver cancer, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes and gallstones.”

Of course, we’ve seen many prior forms of the unnecessarily polarizing “coffee: medicine or poison?” article. What made this one different is that it was featured prominently in the most notable consumer magazine for wine drinkers. Isn’t that a bit like Cigar Aficionado magazine citing the latest medical research on the dangers of eating red meat? For all the people who insist on making wine analogies for coffee, we seem to be holding coffee to a different health standard than we have for wine.

Death by Numbers

In 2000, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), alcohol consumption accounted for approximately 85,000 U.S. deaths — third only behind tobacco and poor diet & physical inactivity. Statistics from other U.S. government reports show that, in 2005, 16,885 people in the U.S. died in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes (representing 39% of all traffic-related deaths), and, in 2001, there were over 1,700 unintentional fatal injuries related to alcohol among U.S. college students aged 18-24.

Curiously enough, none of these reports made mention of coffee-related deaths. No mention of five-morning-cups-of-coffee, caffeine-impaired drivers plowing over pedestrians on sidewalks. No mention of caffeine-addicted patients hooked up to tubes in hospitals who died of espresso-induced liver failure. No mention of college students who die each year from coffee-related binge drinking when cramming for exams.

Americans are notoriously bad with proportions — and particularly those associated with relative risks. We sweat the small stuff and ignore the more dangerous threats, deceived either by high drama or mundane routine. Is this coffee paranoia a bit like people willing to give up their civil liberties — worried about being killed at the hands of terrorists — when ultimately they have greater odds of being killed walking across the street or falling?

Perhaps. But there is good news, wine-drinkers: that cup of coffee you obsess about probably isn’t going to kill you. However, there may be a dirty secret or two about that wine thing you might want to consider.