As addictive as cupcakes

If I read the phrase “as addictive as cocaine” one more time I’m going to hit the bottle.

Anything that is either overused, pleasurable or has become vaguely associated with the dopamine system is compared to cocaine.

In fact, here is a list of things claimed to be as addictive as the illegal nose powder in the popular press:

World of Warcraft
Junk food
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Ice cream
Fatty foods

And here is a scientifically verified list of things genuinely addictive as cocaine:


In fact, the concept of ‘addictive as cocaine’ really makes very little sense. Even among drugs, cocaine has a unique chemical profile and social context that are the main things that determine its ‘addictiveness’.

Even if you wanted to make the vague analogy that rates of problematic use are similar you’d need to do a decent epidemiological study.

The classic research from the US reports that about 5% of users become cocaine dependent two years after starting the drug.

We are still waiting for a similar epidemiological study on the use of World of Warcraft or the consumption of cupcakes.

Link to cocaine entry on Wikipedia

18 thoughts on “As addictive as cupcakes”

  1. Cocaine is easy to kick as long as one is not around it. It’s very hard to resist if it is in reach, especially freebase and crack — snorting coke is nothing compared to smoking it — even so, it’s still easy to quit smoking it if it is not available. This makes it more of a compulsion than an addiction, the way I see it.

    Nicotine was the hardest for me, by miles. It’s been well over a year and I still want a cigarette.

    Low-grade cannabis is very easy to quit, however, the kind-bud that’s out there now is a bit more difficult to quit after prolonged use, but it’s much easier than nicotine, no comparison.

  2. Hmm, are you objecting to the accuracy of the trope or its use at all? I can see arguments against the latter problem: the laziness of the author in using a clichéd metaphor, and possibly the dubious taste of referencing serious personal problems in a light-hearted manner.
    But it seems that the tilt of your objection is to the accuracy of the metaphor, and I object to that! Metaphors are by nature inaccurate, or rely on a lack of specific knowledge by the majority of readers. They are loose associations of concepts, not detailed comparisons. A domain specialist necessarily will have a greater cognitive dissonance when presented with a metaphor one half of which is in his or her field of expertise, but I rather feel that you should just bite that bullet,* or else we will be ruling out by caveat any metaphor of which the literalist meaning is false, which would be, well, all of them.

  3. Peanuts are easy to kick as long as one is not around them. It’s very hard to resist them if they are in reach, especially when they’re well salted — peanut butter is nothing compared to the whole nuts — even so, it’s still easy to quit eating them if they’re not available. More of a compulsion than an addiction, the way I see it.

    Can anyone say ‘randomised controlled trial’?

    1. …and by the way, my struggles with cocaine, nicotine and marijuana were difficult and no joke. This is a real life observation, not theoretical or in a book. Can anyone say, “insensitive loudmouth”?

      1. John, I dunno if that exactly characterises me but I can understand your anger. I can only offer my apology.

        I’m not used to having people take me seriously (seriously), and I lose track of context, perhaps especially (but not only) on the ‘net.

        Turn my abrasive comments around. Nowadays everything is ‘addictive.’ But we seem to rely more on moral judgments or anecdotes to decide the truth. How many things are really addictive? What’s addictive?

  4. Hi Vaughan,

    I seem to remember reading a quantified measurement of the increase in dopamine neurotransmission due to different addictive drugs. It listed cannabis and cocaine, but left of things like cakes and facebook.

    If I recall correctly, Cocaine caused an ~1000% increase in the release of DA from vesicles directly (as a DA transporter agonist) and THC caused an approx ~300% increase in DA release from vesicles as a downstream effect (THC being an anandamide agonist). As usual, I can remember the book I read this in but can’t find the actual paper referenced now. The book was Julien (2001). As always, we should question whether the concentration of the drugs used in these in vivo neuron experiments are equivalent to the concentration experienced in a recreational dose.

    Its highly likely that there are equivalent data for things like nicotine etc. and it is possible that some substances, of which nicotine is a good contender, are actually *more* addictive than cocaine. Obviously cakes and facebook are impossible to test via this method.

    What would be really good would be a ranking of the drugs mentioned above in terms of increased DA release, and perhaps a separate ranking in terms of user experienced “addictiveness”. I’m pretty sure that cakes and facebook would feature fairly low down on the addictiveness list of people who have experienced nicotine or crack cocaine use.


    Julien, Robert M. (2001) A primer of Drug Action 9th Edition. Worth Publishers, New York, NY.

  5. Dear English People.Freud and Jung used cocaine and testpeople abused sexually then.That time when they have been lived then sex was a tabu,no speek,nowadays maybe too.It was too easy to Freud explaine all dreams meanings sex,behavior was then.The Thrue Scientist dont notise them at all.Yous Pia Marjukka Laasonen.Finland.

  6. Knowing nothing about addiction, I’m a bit confused. I realize some substances are chemically addictive. But if someone (sans an eating disorder) feels compelled to eat a whole bag of chips, is this a different type of compulsion than a regular mild addiction?

  7. Amelie, no. Addiction is defined as compulsive use of a substance or activity despite negative consequences. “Chemical” addiction AKA physical dependence actually doesn’t matter much: cocaine doesn’t cause physical dependence (You don’t get sick when you stop taking it, as with heroin) but it’s plenty addictive. There are things that cause physical dependence— some blood pressure medications will kill you if you stop them abruptly so you physically need them to live— but this is not addiction because there’s no craving or use despite negative experiences.

    Dopamine measures can’t tell you much about addictiveness either because they aren’t giving you context. Something might release a ton of dopamine and be stressful or be simply undesired by the person or animal— a rat in a social setting will take far less coke than the isolated rats traditionally used in the cocaine “addictiveness” studies. Just because an addict has intense craving doesn’t mean he’s going to use.

    The problem is that addiction is a relationship with a substance or activity and relationships depend on an extraordinarily wide range of variables. Most studies put addiction rates to cocaine and heroin around 10-15% (the one Vaughan cites is a quite low rate)— but most people believe that “addictive” things are things that hook 90% of people. Cigarettes come close: rates are 30% or higher depending on if you measure from “first use” or “first regular use.” Bottom line is there are serious problems with our concept of addiction and it’s extraordinarily complex.

    1. Well, thanks for that detailed explanation, Maia, but my question was more about the nature of compulsive eating (by people with no eating disorder) and how it does or doesn’t relate to true addiction.

      Thus getting back to the theme of why someone would eat a stack of cupcakes or a whole bag of chips.

      1. The basis of compulsive eating is pretty much the same as the basis of any compulsive or addictive behavior, though appetite regulation is more complex than the regulation of drug-related behaviors because it involves things like signals of the fullness of the gut and other chemical signals that are absent in drug addictions and gambling addictions.

        On the surface, obsessive compulsive disorder, food addictions and substance addictions look different, but the same self-control, desire and pleasure producing systems are involved. Food addictions just include additional regulatory complexity.

    2. @Maia okay, that make sense. I had not considered obsessive compulsive disorders and gut signals in all that. Interesting. Thanks for the information.

      1. You’re welcome! When you start to think carefully about these things, it becomes extremely complicated, especially because the terms themselves are contested.

  8. Cupcakes can be highly addictive. But only if you’re addicted to food.
    To become addicted to anything requires a genetic predisposition, a source of emotional trauma, and a substance or behaviour that is available in the local environment. Personal preference is important too, it’s hard to get addicted to something you don’t like. My personal addiction is to alcohol, though at present I am six years clean and sober. I was very lucky in that I got to spend a year in rehab, recovering from the very unpleasant physical and mental side effects. While I was in there, I met many other addicts, of various persuasions and came to the conclusion that food, ( such as cupcakes ) is the hardest addiction to beat. Alcohol and drugs are easier to stop, because you can just stop. Food is harder, because you have to eat in moderation, and people with an addictive personality find it very hard to do anything in moderation. Including moderation.

  9. my best friend is getting addicted to housecleaning….doesn’t quite show as still cluttered, but makes him feel better….

  10. There are no addictive drugs, games, foods, or experiences.
    What these is, is addictive people.

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