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Are Energy Drink Companies Downplaying the Risks?

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San Antonio, TXOften when a company fights with legislators over the safety of its product, studies, data and reviews are included in the debate as proof of the harmlessness of a particular product. But how unbiased are those studies, especially those funded by companies who have a vested interest in the data? An editorial in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal; published online 9/12/13) suggests that energy drink makers are downplaying the risks of energy drink side effects in studies funded by energy drink companies.

The editorial was written by Peter Miller, and suggests that energy drink makers, especially the makers of Red Bull, fund many of the studies that provide reassuring data that there is no risk to combining alcohol and energy drinks. Miller notes that many such findings are presented at international conferences, but because of limited disclosure requirements, the audiences may not be aware that the findings presented were from studies funded by energy drink makers. This is because such conferences may not require researchers to disclose conflicts of interest.

Miller cites a 2012 Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and Drugs conference at which four out of five researchers who spoke about alcohol and energy drinks received financial support from Red Bull. That financial support may have been for research or may have been used so the researchers could attend conferences. “The four presenters who had received such support all concluded that no evidence showed that the combination of energy drinks and alcohol increased drinking or harm,” Miller writes. “The non-industry funded researcher also reported no significant difference between alcohol and alcohol with energy drink sessions, but went on to highlight that there is simply not enough evidence to answer the key questions yet.”

One of the main issues with research into the topic of alcohol and energy drink risks is that it is difficult to conduct proper analysis because of the ethical concerns surrounding getting study participants drunk and providing them with too many energy drinks. As a result, Miller writers, studies in laboratory settings do not tend to reflect real world drinking situations because they use less alcohol than might be consumed during a drinking session, and only one energy drink.

Concerns about energy drinks extend beyond their being mixed with alcohol and into concerns that children are drinking too much of the drinks at too young an age. Lawsuits have been filed against some companies, alleging youths have died after ingesting too much of the energy drinks.

A 2011 study titled “Health Effects of Energy Drinks on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults” (published in Pediatrics; 2/14/11) found that energy drinks have been associated with serious adverse effects. The study noted that of 5,448 US caffeine overdoses reported in 2007, 46 percent involved youths younger than 19 years old.

“Energy drinks have no therapeutic benefit and many ingredients are understudied and not regulated,” researchers wrote. “The known and unknown pharmacology of agents included in such drinks, combined with reports of toxicity, raises concern for potentially serious adverse effects in association with energy-drink use.”


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