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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

UAE doctors say it's time for stricter energy drink advertising as new evidence reveals effect on blood flow 

Experts have said that the drinks should be regulated more like tobacco or alcohol as new research suggests they are more harmful than previously feared

A new study has found that drinking more than one energy drink can restrict blood flow, raising health concerns about their consumption by children and young people. Chris Whiteoak / The National
A new study has found that drinking more than one energy drink can restrict blood flow, raising health concerns about their consumption by children and young people. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Doctors have called for a restriction on the advertising of energy drinks after new research raised concerns that they are more harmful than previously feared.

American researchers found that drinking one and a half large cans of the drinks, which are high in sugar and caffeine, almost halved the diameter of blood vessels in otherwise fit and healthy young adults, restricting blood flow.

Although only a small study, the results raise fears that the drinks could increase the risk of stroke or cardiac arrest if consumed regularly.

The UAE, in line with governments across the world, has taken steps to discourage overconsumption of energy drinks, particularly among the young. Last year a 100 per cent tax was imposed on energy drinks, with the same levy imposed on tobacco products and a 50 per cent charge on soft drinks.

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However, doctors warned that further action is needed, with the drinks still remaining popular among the nation’s children. One called for new restrictions in advertising the products in an effort to make them a social taboo similar to smoking.

“The only way to curtail it is to stop the extensive advertising, exactly like they did for cigarettes. Now, you cannot go to an event sponsored by tobacco companies. [Energy drinks] need the same level of caution we use for tobacco and alcohol. Children should not have access to them,” said Sadaf Jalil Ahmed, a doctor at Deira International School in Dubai.

Despite other rules being introduced around restricting purchase of energy drinks for under 16s in some areas, shops and schools, Dr Ahmed said she is concerned that parents may still be buying the products for their children.

“There has been no publicity, no outcry about the damaging effect of energy drinks,” she said.

“Now, people are sheepish or a little bit embarrassed about smoking in public, it has become taboo. Energy drinks have to go through the same process, and you can speed it up by withdrawing the advertising and the positive image they are constantly promoting.

“You won’t run faster, you won’t get better exam results and neither will your work output improve with an energy drink — children should be taught better work ethics for better attainment.”

Ruba Rizk, consultant paediatrician in adolescent medicine at Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital in Dubai, said physicians had a role to play in being more aware that energy drinks could be the cause of a range of symptoms among teenage patients. She also called for better education of children and parents about the dangers.

She said companies often deployed misleading advertising — for example by claiming products boosted vitamin intake and immunity — which wrongly suggest the products have health benefits.

“We get the effects of caffeine and stimulants, and this is what poses the danger,” she said. “It can disturb the heart, affect sleep, cause headaches, make blood pressure rise. They can also worsen symptoms of anxiety in kids and teens.

“Based on the patients I see there is a high prevalence of energy drink consumption among teens. Definitely more so in male patients. The issue is parents aren’t always aware that these drinks are a reason for concern, especially because they are marketed as immunity boosters or as having vitamins in them.”

The latest study, carried out by researchers from the University of Texas in Houston, looked at 44 non-smokers in their 20s who had their blood vessels tested before and after consuming one-and-a-half 500 millilitre cans of energy drink.

An analysis of the internal diameters of the blood vessels — which indicates their overall health — found that they were drastically smaller 90 minutes after the drinks were consumed.

This means the heart would have to work harder to pump blood around the body and supply it with oxygen, particularly during exercise.

A study published last year found more than four out of five Emirati college students consume energy drinks, and about one in five do so every day.

John Higgins, a professor of medicine at the university’s McGovern Medical School and the lead researcher on the study, said it was clear the drinks are “not intended for children”.

"[Smaller vessels mean] more work for the heart and less oxygen supply. This could explain why there have been cases where kids have had a cardiac arrest after an energy drink,” he said.

This negative effect on blood vessels may be related to ingredients such as caffeine, taurine or sugar the researchers suggested. Their findings will be formally presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association next week.

The energy drink industry, however, maintains that the products are safe.

"Mainstream energy drinks contain about half the caffeine of a similarly sized cup of coffee house coffee, and have been extensively studied and confirmed safe for consumption by government safety authorities worldwide. Nothing in this preliminary research counters this well-established fact," said William Dermody, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association.