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Caffeinated Waffles and the Law

by Joe Sugarman

People have been drinking coffee and tea for a caffeinated boost for centuries, but in the last few years the stimulant has crept into everything from "Wired" breakfast waffles to "Perky" beef jerky to a new line of Cracker Jacks called "Cracker Jack'd."

It's a trend that caught the attention of Stephen Teret, JD, MPH '79, founder of the Johns Hopkins Clinic for Public Health Law and Policy and a professor of Health Policy and Management.

"I wasn't focused on the health effects of the caffeine per se, but if you start feeling really good from the waffles because of the caffeine, maybe you're going to eat more of them than you normally would," says Teret, who compares the practice to cigarette manufacturers adding nicotine to cigarettes to addict consumers. "It's the sugar for some of these products or the salt or the fat that will ultimately give you health problems, not the caffeine, but, like nicotine, the caffeine is what is habituating you. … I thought that there's something the FDA ought to be doing about it."

In other words, the issue was ripe for study by Teret's health law and policy clinic, which he began in 2012 as a way for students to gain hands-on experience solving public health problems. In the clinic's first year, Teret's students examined the issue of elevated sodium levels in food served at senior living facilities.

They also made a video presentation to Maryland Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene Joshua Sharfstein, who later called for public comment on proposed regulations based on the students' work. This year's students presented the issue of caffeinated food products to Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy, explaining why the agency should be paying attention to it. "It was just a fantastic opportunity for students because they have the ability to actually make change by talking to someone who is in the position to affect the regulatory structure of food in the United States," says Teret. "And that's exactly what the clinic was designed to do."

This spring his clinic plans to address the issue of states experimenting with drugs to be used as lethal injections when executing death-row prisoners.