What’s The True Cost of Amazon’s Low Prices? The FTC and Congress Have Antitrust Concerns

This story is part of a Recode series about Big Tech and antitrust. Over the next few weeks, we’ll cover what’s happening with Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

On the heels of yet another year of record sales, Amazon is dealing with a couple of unwelcome updates in the new year. The Senate Judiciary Committee has announced it will soon be marking up the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, an antitrust bill targeting Amazon and other Big Tech companies. This follows reports that the Federal Trade Commission is ramping up its years-long antitrust investigation into Amazon’s cloud computing arm, Amazon Web Services, or AWS.

It’s clearer now than ever that Amazon, which was allowed to grow mostly unhindered for more than two decades, is caught in the middle of an international effort to check Big Tech’s power.

The Senate bill, one of several bipartisan antitrust bills in Congress, would prohibit Amazon from giving its products preferential treatment, among other things. It’s the bill that would affect the company the most, and the one it has been fighting hardest against. Meanwhile, the renewed scrutiny from the FTC about alleged anti-competitive behavior from AWS, which represents a significant and largely invisible source of Amazon’s profits, could threaten Amazon’s long-term dominance in a number of industries.

Just because a company is successful and dominates a market (or even several markets) doesn’t mean it’s violating any antitrust laws. But Amazon’s critics say it illegally uses its power to harm competition and consumers, particularly with its Marketplace, where outside, or third-party, businesses can sell their products to Amazon customers alongside Amazon’s own wares.

Amazon has been accused of copying popular products to sell under its own labels, using non-public seller data to inform its own decisions, and forcing sellers into agreements that essentially prohibit them from offering lower prices elsewhere. Amazon denies some of these allegations and says other actions are simply meant to provide the services its customers want at the best price.

Some of these complaints have been around a while, but 2022 may be the year that Amazon faces meaningful and real consequences for them. There are still caveats. State attorneys general are rumored to be looking into some of Amazon’s business practices, but only one has filed a lawsuit so far.

The FTC is still waiting for the confirmation of a fifth Democratic commissioner who would break up the deadlock of two Republican and two Democratic commissioners. And while antitrust bills are making progress in Congress, Democratic lawmakers currently seem focused on other initiatives ahead of the midterm elections — elections that could give Republicans a majority in one or both houses of Congress.

Amazon isn’t the only Big Tech company that’s been targeted, but it might have more reason than anyone else to worry about the FTC in particular. One of two federal agencies that enforce antitrust laws, the FTC is now run by Lina Khan, who basically built her career on research surrounding her 2017 Yale Law Journal paper, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.”

The paper detailed how Amazon’s rise showed the flaws in antitrust laws and led to Khan becoming known as Amazon’s antitrust antagonist. Since her appointment to the FTC last June, it hasn’t seemed like the question is whether the agency will take on Amazon, but rather when and how. Amazon, meanwhile, has asked that Khan recuse herself from any antitrust matters involving the company.

Khan “is best suited to understand the various issues and problems with Amazon,” said Alex Harman, a competition policy advocate at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. “And we are very excited that she will be able to bring a significant action against them.”

Khan has a lot to choose from. It’s hard to overstate Amazon’s role in the economy, or how many roles it has. It’s a technology company. It’s a delivery service. It’s an advertising platform. It powers about a third of the internet. It’s a movie studio and a streaming service. It’s a health care provider. It’s a surveillance machine and a data harvester. It’s one of the largest employers in the world and one of the most valuable companies. Also, it sells books.

In response to questions about whether its size and market share were too big in too many sectors, Amazon told Recode it faces “intense competition” in all of its lines of business. It says its expansion is part of a long-running strategy to make “big bets over the long term to reinvent the customer experience.”

Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, an anti-monopoly advocacy group, sees it differently: “Amazon leverages its power in one space to take over a new space, which is core to their business practice. They have the ability to combine the competitive advantages of different aspects of their business to take over new sectors of the economy.”

While the FTC, for now, seems interested in AWS (and Amazon’s attempt to buy MGM), most of the antitrust attention we’ve seen elsewhere is focused on Amazon’s retail business and how it treats the businesses that sell products through its Marketplace platform. Critics say Amazon uses its power to give its own wares an unfair advantage over third-party sellers, and effectively forces them to pay for extra services and make agreements that could inflate prices everywhere.

“That’s where there’s a lot of obvious harms, and where you have businesses who are unhappy with how they’re being treated,” Miller said.

Consumers may be paying more and missing out on new products, companies, and innovations that a more competitive retail space would have produced. And that may be a violation of the antitrust laws we have now, or those to come.

How Amazon’s power might lead to higher prices

Many antitrust complaints about Amazon’s practices are based on its position as both a platform and a seller on that platform. This gives Amazon a great deal of power over the companies it’s competing against, as well as an incentive to favor its products over theirs. About 60 percent of Amazon’s online sales come through Marketplace.

This can be a mutually beneficial relationship. Marketplace’s sellers — currently more than 2 million of them — get access to Amazon’s huge customer base, and Amazon gets a vastly expanded selection that has helped make it the first and only website many online shoppers visit.

This model brings in hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue every year for Amazon, which now has an estimated 40 percent share of the e-commerce market in the United States. The company with the second-largest e-commerce market share, Walmart, has just 7 percent.

At the same time, Amazon likes to say it has but a small sliver — 1 percent — of a competitive global retail market. But that’s online and offline combined, and it includes many industries in which Amazon doesn’t sell anything at all. Amazon is also on track to edge out Walmart and become the most dominant retailer, online and off, in the United States as soon as this year.

No company has the kind of ecosystem Amazon built around its retail business beyond Marketplace. Amazon collects tons of data about its shoppers — data it uses to optimize its services and to fuel its burgeoning and increasingly lucrative advertising business.

Meanwhile, Amazon Prime and its fast free shipping has not only created an intensely loyal customer base but also compelled Amazon to build up its own shipping and logistics arm, Fulfillment by Amazon, to reduce its reliance on outside services and give it more control over its sellers. Many of Amazon’s rival retailers — namely, Walmart and Target — do some or all of these things to a lesser extent, but they’re just playing catch-up.

Smaller companies simply don’t have the scale or money to offer such services. Amazon, which has turned itself from a bookstore to an “everything store” to an everything platform, is in a class by itself.

“There are dynamics in digital that are fundamentally different,” Andrew Lipsman, principal analyst at eMarketer, told Recode. “Access to data is fundamentally different than we’ve ever had before. And all the other things that has enabled — all these digital businesses that Amazon has spun off — are underpinned by completely different economics than traditional retail economics.”

Amazon is happy to tell you how good it’s been for the small- and medium-sized businesses making money using its platform and how proposed antitrust actions could harm them. Others argue that Amazon makes even more money off of third-party sellers who have to play by Amazon’s rules because their businesses wouldn’t survive without the e-commerce giant and its customer base. And those rules, they say, aren’t always fair.

Last May, the attorney general of Washington, DC, Karl Racine, sued Amazon for antitrust violations over its treatment of Marketplace sellers. In September, he amended that lawsuit to include the wholesalers, or first-party sellers, from which Amazon buys products before selling them to its customers.

Racine told Recode that he started to wonder what the price of Amazon’s much-touted “customer obsession” was, especially after seeing accusations that Amazon copied popular products on its platform and then sold its own similar products for a lower price. (Amazon says it’s standard practice for retailers to use data about customers’ interests to help determine what to make for their own private labels.)

“I found that offensive,” Racine told Recode. “I felt like Amazon was just a copycat and burying a creative source. They were not focused only on the customer. They were also focused on their bottom line.”

The DC attorney general’s office investigated and found that “Amazon, the dominant player, seeks to maximize its profits at the expense of consumers, third-party sellers, and wholesalers,” Racine said. “It’s kept prices for goods artificially high, hampered competition, stifled innovation, and illegally tilted the playing field, all in its favor.”

Racine’s suit echoes some of the issues raised in other lawsuits and investigations as well as those identified in a recent report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that advocates for locally owned businesses.

The big sticking point is that Amazon’s policies can effectively force other companies to give Amazon the lowest price for their goods. This is due to Amazon’s “fair pricing” policy, which says it can downgrade or stop sales of third-party sellers’ products if they’re priced “significantly higher” on Amazon than at other outlets.

Meanwhile, wholesalers have to agree to give Amazon a certain cut of their products’ sales. But Amazon also sets the prices of those products. If it reduces them to price match another outlet, the wholesaler may end up eating the difference and even losing money. That keeps wholesalers from selling their wares to anyone else for less.

Amazon sees all this as looking out for its customers and making sure they’re getting the lowest prices. But Racine and those who have filed similar lawsuits believe sellers and wholesalers are being stopped from selling their products for lower prices in other stores.

Because of this, competitors can’t offer lower prices to get an advantage over Amazon, and customers end up paying Amazon’s prices even if they don’t shop at Amazon — and paying more. Sellers and wholesalers can choose not to sell to Amazon, but few of them have the size and brand recognition needed to survive in a world where so many shoppers do most, if not all, of their online shopping on Amazon.

“That’s the power of brands: Nike is able to say, ‘You know what, Amazon? We don’t need you,’” Lipsman said. “The more commoditized your product is, the more likely you have to sell through Amazon, and you’re dependent on that channel.”

Amazon has filed a motion to dismiss the DC attorney general’s lawsuit, arguing that it’s simply making sure its customers are getting the lowest prices. The policies don’t force sellers to offer the lowest price on Amazon, Amazon says; they simply discourage them from offering higher prices on Amazon than they do elsewhere. But this hasn’t always been the case.

Just a few years ago, Amazon had a price parity policy, which more explicitly said sellers couldn’t offer lower prices anywhere else. Amazon ended this practice in Europe years ago amid scrutiny there, and then did the same thing in the United States in 2019. Racine says the fair pricing policy that replaced it serves the same function and is similarly anti-competitive.

How Amazon uses its power over sellers to squeeze them for money and data

Even though one of Amazon’s selling points is its low prices, critics say those aren’t necessarily the lowest prices possible, in part due to the increasing costs to sell on Marketplace. Amazon charges sellers a referral fee, typically 15 percent, for items sold. Then it piles on optional services that many sellers feel compelled to buy if they want their businesses to survive, cutting into their margins and forcing some to raise their prices to maintain a profit.

Fulfillment by Amazon, or FBA, is one example of this. Amazon doesn’t require that its sellers use its fulfillment and shipping service, but doing so makes them eligible for Prime, and it’s exceedingly difficult to qualify for Prime if they don’t.

That recognizable Prime badge is important. There’s a higher likelihood that Amazon’s customers will buy Prime products, because the shipping is free for Prime members and because Amazon gives preference to Prime items when it assigns what’s known as the “Buy Box.” When multiple sellers offer the same product, the Buy Box winner is added to carts when customers click “buy.” More than 80 percent of an item’s sales go to the Buy Box winner, so sellers are very motivated to do everything possible to get it. That may include using FBA even if it costs them more than shipping items themselves.

This practice has already gotten Amazon into trouble abroad. In December, Italy’s antitrust regulators fined Amazon about $1.3 billion for giving sellers who use FBA benefits over those who don’t. Amazon says it’s planning to appeal the decision, but more trouble could be on the way: The company is facing a similar investigation from the European Union’s European Commission, and India is also investigating Amazon for violating its antitrust laws.

Sellers have also complained about ads, which give their items better placement in search results. Reports say that Amazon has increased the number of ads, upping its revenue and pushing organic results down even further — which, in turn, compels sellers to buy ads to regain the prominent placement they used to get for free. Amazon told Recode that sellers wouldn’t use FBA or buy ads if those services didn’t add value or come at the best price, as they can always use other fulfillment services and buy ads elsewhere.

But it’s not just fees that Amazon gets from its sellers. Critics say the company uses data it collects from third-party sellers to give itself a competitive advantage. This was the subject of a “statement of objections” from the European Union, and as the DC attorney general has made clear, Amazon is notorious for creating its own versions of popular products sold by third parties.

The company recently opened up some of its data to sellers, possibly in an effort to ward off some of this criticism, and says it prohibits the use of non-public data about individual sellers to develop its own products. But founder Jeff Bezos told Congress he couldn’t guarantee that policy has never been violated, and multiple press reports suggest that it has.

The company has also been accused of self-preferencing, or giving its products preferential treatment — and a competitive advantage — over those sold by third parties. This could take the form of giving its own products the Buy Box or prominent search rankings they didn’t earn. Amazon has total control over its platform, so the company can really do whatever it wants, and there isn’t much sellers can do about it.

Self-preferencing has become a catch-all term for many of Amazon’s alleged anti-competitive practices. It’s attracted the most attention from regulators so far. The company denies that it gives preference to its own items in search results and says the reports that it does are inaccurate. Many legislators aren’t buying that and have proposed bills forbidding self-preferencing, with Amazon specifically in mind.

How Amazon could be changed by new antitrust laws

Per its policies, the FTC has stayed mum on what, if anything, it’s investigating on Amazon. Congress, on the other hand, has been very public.

The House Judiciary Committee spent 16 months looking into competition and digital markets, focusing on Amazon as well as Apple, Google, and Facebook. Last year, a bipartisan and mostly bicameral group of lawmakers proposed a package of Big Tech-focused antitrust bills. The House’s bills made it through committee markup last June, but have yet to be put to a vote.

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act is the only Senate bill to be scheduled for markup so far. The House’s Ending Platform Monopolies Act, which still doesn’t have a Senate equivalent, is likely the most expansive of the bills in the antitrust package, forbidding dominant digital platforms from owning lines of business that incentivize them to give their own products and services preference over third parties. Should that bill become law, it could have a huge impact on Amazon, forcing it to split off its first-party store from its sales platform.

Amazon has fought back against the bills. It has sent emails to certain sellers and set up an informational website warning them about how the bills, if they become law, could negatively impact them. Amazon claims that it might have to shut down Marketplace or limit its ability to offer Prime services. The bills’ supporters say that companies would still be able to offer all of those services, but could finally compete on a level playing field.

“We urge Congress to consider these consequences instead of rushing through this ambiguously worded bill,” Brian Huseman, Amazon vice president of public policy, told Recode in a statement. He added that the bills should apply “to all retailers, not just one.”

While Amazon waits to see what the FTC and Congress do, its antitrust battles, real and potential, haven’t seemed to harm its bottom line. Business is good, growing, and disruptive. Amazon is even reportedly preparing to take on Shopify, a platform that helps businesses create their own online shops and has grown exponentially during the pandemic, with a similar offering that could come out as early as this year. If true (Amazon wouldn’t comment), it shows that Amazon isn’t afraid of going after potential threats even while under more scrutiny than it’s ever experienced.

That’s exactly the attitude Racine, the DC attorney general, takes issue with. “Amazon claims to be all about consumers,” he said. “What our evidence shows is that Amazon is all about more profit for Amazon, at the cost of competition and at the expense of consumers. And we’re looking forward to proving that in court.

Sara Morrison

Sara Morrison covers Big Tech and antitrust regulation, in addition to personal data and privacy. She previously covered technology’s impact on the world for Vocativ. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic, Jezebel, Boston.com, Nieman Reports, and Columbia Journalism Review, among others.

Source: What’s the true cost of Amazon’s low prices? The FTC and Congress have antitrust concerns. – Vox

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Google And Facebook Hit With $238 Million Fines In France Over Privacy Violations

France’s data protection regulator on Thursday hit Google and Facebook with fines of €150 million ($170 million) and €60 million ($68 million), respectively, for failing to provide internet users an easy way to disable online trackers, marking the latest in a series of fines faced by the two American tech giants for failing to comply with European privacy laws.

Key Facts

In a statement outlining its investigation, French regulator CNIL noted that Facebook, Google and Youtube’s websites offered a button that allowed users to immediately accept cookies but did not provide a similar button to easily refuse them.

The regulator added that the process of refusing the online trackers was several steps longer.

The CNIL ruled that this process affects users’ freedom of consent as it influences their choice of accepting or rejecting cookies.

While cookies can be essential for a website’s functioning—allowing for user authentication and remembering preferences among other things—they can also be used to track a user’s online behavior and serve them advertising.

In addition to the hefty fines, both companies have been ordered to update their interface for French users—making it easier for them to reject cookies—within three months.

Key BackgroundThe fines against Google and Facebook follow a series of similar regulatory actions facing U.S  tech giants including Apple and Amazon in Europe. In December 2020, Google and Amazon were hit with similar fines for their handling of web cookies to track user activities without seeking proper consent..

Last year, regulators in France, the U.K., and the EU initiated formal antitrust probes into Google and Facebook’s online advertising business. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which went into effect in May 2018 has dramatically increased the powers of the bloc’s privacy enforcers. Under the law, serious privacy breaches can lead to fines of as much as 4% of a company’s annual global revenue.

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I am a Breaking News Reporter at Forbes, with a focus on covering important tech policy and business news. Graduated from Columbia University with an

Source: Google And Facebook Hit With $238 Million Fines In France Over Privacy Violations

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Clearview AI Ordered To Delete All Facial Recognition Data Belonging To Australians

Controversial facial recognition firm Clearview AI has been ordered to destroy all images and facial templates belonging to individuals living in Australia by the country’s national privacy regulator.

Clearview, which claims to have scraped 10 billion images of people from social media sites in order to identify them in other photos, sells its technology to law enforcement agencies. It was trialled by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) between October 2019 and March 2020.

Now, following an investigation, Australia privacy regulator, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), has found that the company breached citizens’ privacy. “The covert collection of this kind of sensitive information is unreasonably intrusive and unfair,” said OAIC privacy commissioner Angelene Falk in a press statement. “It carries significant risk of harm to individuals, including vulnerable groups such as children and victims of crime, whose images can be searched on Clearview AI’s database.”

Said Falk: “When Australians use social media or professional networking sites, they don’t expect their facial images to be collected without their consent by a commercial entity to create biometric templates for completely unrelated identification purposes. The indiscriminate scraping of people’s facial images, only a fraction of whom would ever be connected with law enforcement investigations, may adversely impact the personal freedoms of all Australians who perceive themselves to be under surveillance.”

The investigation into Clearview’s practices by the OAIC was carried out in conjunction with the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). However, the ICO has yet to make a decision about the legality of Clearview’s work in the UK. The agency says it is “considering its next steps and any formal regulatory action that may be appropriate under the UK data protection laws.”

As reported by The Guardian, Clearview itself intends to appeal the decision. “Clearview AI operates legitimately according to the laws of its places of business,” Mark Love, a lawyer for the firm BAL Lawyers representing Clearview, told the publication. “Not only has the commissioner’s decision missed the mark on the manner of Clearview AI’s manner of operation, the commissioner lacks jurisdiction.”

Clearview argues that the images it collected were publicly available, so no breach of privacy occurred, and that they were published in the US, so Australian law does not apply.

Around the world, though, there is growing discontent with the spread of facial recognition systems, which threaten to eliminate anonymity in public spaces. Yesterday, Facebook parent company Meta announced it was shutting down the social platform’s facial recognition feature and deleting the facial templates it created for the system. The company cited “growing concerns about the use of this technology as a whole.” Meta also recently paid a $650 million settlement after the tech was found to have breached privacy laws in Illinois in the US.

Source: Clearview AI ordered to delete all facial recognition data belonging to Australians – The Verge

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China Leaps Ahead in Effort to Rein In Algorithms

Beijing is building a system to ensure that the automated processes of Internet platforms are fair, transparent and in line with the ideology of the Communist Party

Regulators called for the algorithms to be fair and transparent, following the ideology of the Communist Party of China.

The campaign puts China one step ahead in policing tech forums, as governments around the world grapple with how to respond to automated technologies that reshape business, social interactions and politics.

Earlier this year, the European Union proposed restricting certain uses of artificial intelligence to reduce potential harm. In the US, lawmakers are investigating Facebook’s influence Inc. NS

Algorithm-driven content on users, after Businesshala reported that the company’s Instagram app has a negative impact on children’s mental health.

China has targeted algorithms more aggressively under the close watch of its domestic tech sector. Draft guidelines released this summer would require algorithms to protect the rights of workers and consumers, and restrict the use of algorithms to manipulate user accounts, online traffic or search results.

“We don’t necessarily see China as a regulatory innovator, but in this case they are,” said Rogier Creamers, an assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, which focuses on Chinese technical policy.

Under a three-year plan released last week, Chinese regulators outlined steps to monitor algorithms, including a registration process and the establishment of a technical team to evaluate the mechanisms and risks of an algorithm.

The latest campaign builds on a broad regulatory push in China’s tech sector that has prompted investigations into some of the country’s biggest companies, including e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding. Ltd.

The push is partly directed at business practices that regulators deem harmful so workers or consumers.

Companies such as Meituan and Didi have faced heat over the working conditions of drivers, as well as calls for creating algorithms that schedule workers’ tasks and pay more transparently. Officials have also warned tech companies this year against exploiting personal data and using algorithms to charge discriminatory prices from customers.

China’s Cyberspace Administration, Alibaba and Didi did not respond to requests for comment. China is currently celebrating its National Day holiday.

Meituan declined to comment. The company previously published an explanation of its delivery algorithm and said it is making changes to give delivery drivers more flexibility.

Experts said it would be a challenge for regulators to tighten controls on algorithms without hindering development or innovation in one of China’s most successful sectors. Internet companies rely on complex mathematical instructions for tasks ranging from analysis of social-media behavior to mapping optimal distribution routes.

While algorithms have contributed to technological advancement and societal development, the CAC said in last week’s announcement, they have also brought “challenges to ideological security, a fair and equal society, and the protection of the legal rights of Internet users.”

Beijing-based partner at law firm Bird & Bird, James Gong, said tighter regulatory oversight of algorithms is likely to impact China’s internet industry.

Mr. Gong said of the country’s Internet companies, “Almost all of them use algorithms and automated decision-making and profiling to ensure that their marketing is more accurate and to improve business efficiency and increase profits.” Is.”

A senior manager at ByteDance Ltd said the requirement to register the algorithm would only add a step, restricting the learning of user behavior and recommendation services, as well as requiring disclosure of proprietary technology that could hurt the company’s business. .

ByteDance, which owns social-media sensation TikTok and its Chinese sister app Douyin, is known for its powerful algorithms that drive user recommendations and content.

“The regulatory environment is clear, and we need to start thinking about how to adjust accordingly,” the ByteDance manager said. He said that since most of the new regulation is still under debate, it is difficult to say what the immediate commercial impact will be.

ByteDance did not respond to a request for comment.

Sam Sachs, senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, said China’s approach could appeal to other countries that want a thriving digital economy while maintaining a firm grip on political and social discourse. However, she said there is still a lot of uncertainty over the details and enforcement of these new rules.

“I think they understand that this is an impossible task that they have set for themselves,” Ms Sachs said. “I would also say that three years can be ambitious.”

The CAC guidelines also state that algorithms used by Chinese companies must uphold core socialist values ​​and promote “positive energy” in content provided to users.

China is taking more control of online content and communities. In recent months, it has severely restricted online-videogame time for players under the age of 18, banned pop-idol rankings and criticized online male personalities for being too sacrilegious. are visible.

“It’s almost taking online censorship up a notch,” Ms Sachs said. “It is saying that you have an obligation to ensure that any content that is algorithmically driven that you feed into the online space is to shape socialist values.”

By: Stephanie Yang, Reporter, The Wall Street Journal

Source: China Leaps Ahead in Effort to Rein In Algorithms

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A Little RedBull May Give You Wings, But It Probably Will Not Affect Your Tpe

“Energy drinks” (EDs) often contain high levels of caffeine and sugar, with variable levels of taurine, guarana, other “supplements,” and on occasion, vitamins. Frequently chosen by teens and young adults, the sale of EDs has enjoyed tremendous market growth. Over 4.6 billion cans of the most successful of these beverages, Red Bull, were sold in 2011. This prosperity resulted from the strong, recent worldwide annual growth, such as 11% in the United States, 35% in France, and 86% in Turkey.

Whether consumed alone or with alcohol or other drugs, EDs may have significant physical and behavioral effects (). Marketing materials for EDs often imply that these products will improve energy level, attention span, and physical and/or mental performance . Red Bull has been shown to increase heart rate and blood pressure and can reduce cerebral blood flow; these effects can be potentiated under conditions of stress . EDs were responsible for over 20,000 emergency department visits in the United States in 2011, including a doubling in the incidence between 2007 and 2011.

In this issue of the Anatolian Journal of Cardiology, Elitok et al. reported on the electrocardiographic effects of Red Bull. They had particular interest in Red Bull’s effects on ventricular repolarization. The dispersion of ventricular repolarization (DVR), as indicated by a longer interval between the T wave’s peak and end (Tpe or Tpe/QT), correlates with arrhythmic risk in multiple populations .

The healthy volunteer medical students in this investigation consumed a single can of Red Bull under controlled conditions, and the effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and electrocardiographic measurements were observed. As expected, both blood pressure and heart rate increased following Red Bull consumption. However, no change in electrocardiographic DVR was found.

Should young club-going people take this news as vindication of their next order for a “vodka and Red Bull?” Can we write off Red Bull’s cardiovascular effects as benign? Not so fast. The absence of an acute effect of a small dose of ED on one arrhythmia risk factor measured only in ECG lead V5 among a relatively small number of healthy young adults at rest does not equate to definite harmlessness. Our understanding of Red Bull’s effects remains incomplete, especially in cases wherein larger doses are consumed, especially by sicker people and under more strenuous conditions.

Would the consumption of five cans of Red Bull affect healthy subjects’ ECGs? Might only one serving of Red Bull affect ECG of a cardiomyopathy patient or ECG of a patient taking other cardiovascular active medications? Does chronic Red Bull consumption have the same or different effects as a Red Bull binge?

Elitok et al. should be congratulated for their interest in exposing potentially dangerous effects of popular EDs. More studies are required for us to declare Red Bull consumption to be harmless. For now, we can take heart in the absence of one signal of potential danger. At least this little bull is not in the proverbial china shop.

Energy drinks have the effects caffeine and sugar provide, but there is little or no evidence that the wide variety of other ingredients have any effect. Most of the effects of energy drinks on cognitive performance, such as increased attention and reaction speed, are primarily due to the presence of caffeine. Advertising for energy drinks usually features increased muscle strength and endurance, but there is little evidence to support this in the scientific literature.

A caffeine intake of 400 mg per day (for an adult) is considered as safe from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Adverse effects associated with caffeine consumption in amounts greater than 400 mg include nervousness, irritability, sleeplessness, increased urination, abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia), and dyspepsia. Consumption also has been known to cause pupil dilation. Caffeine dosage is not required to be on the product label for food in the United States, unlike drugs, but most (although not all) place the caffeine content of their drinks on the label anyway, and some advocates are urging the FDA to change this practice.

Excessive consumption of energy drinks can have serious health effects resulting from high caffeine and sugar intakes, particularly in children, teens, and young adults. Excessive energy drink consumption may disrupt teens’ sleep patterns and may be associated with increased risk-taking behavior. Excessive or repeated consumption of energy drinks can lead to cardiac problems, such as arrhythmias and heart attacks, and psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and phobias.

In Europe, energy drinks containing sugar and caffeine have been associated with the deaths of athletes. Reviews have noted that caffeine content was not the only factor, and that the cocktail of other ingredients in energy drinks made them more dangerous than drinks whose only stimulant was caffeine; the studies noted that more research and government regulation were needed

By: Todd M. Rosenthal and Daniel P. Morin

Source: A little Red Bull may give you wings, but it probably will not affect your Tpe

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