Red Bull Drink Raises Red Flag

At Cosmopolitan, a trendy bar in midtown Atlanta, the Red Bull is going fast. "People love it," says Cosmopolitan's owner Scott McCray. "It's the biggest craze I've seen in a long time."

Red Bull is popular all over the world. It's sold in more than 50 countries worldwide, including Europe, the United States and Australia. It's marketed as an "energy drink," and consumed by everyone from weightlifters to office workers needing an afternoon boost.

It is touted as improving reaction speed, concentration and mental alertness, and contains caffeine and other stimulants, as well as "important vitamins and carbohydrates," according to the company Web site.

And in bars from New York, to London to Los Angeles, it appears to be as much for people lifting cocktails as weights.

"It's not really good for you, but I don't really take that into consideration when I drink it at night," notes Red Bull drinker Dana Williams, 25, at the Cosmopolitan

But is it potentially dangerous? Swedish officials are investigating the deaths of three young people who are believed to have been drinking Red Bull. Two of the people who died had used Red Bull as a mixer with alcohol, while the third apparently drank several cans of the energy drink after a strenuous workout and later died of massive kidney failure.

France, Denmark and Norway allow Red Bull to be sold only in pharmacies. Greek officials last week recommended that the drink not be used after strenuous exercise or be mixed with alcohol, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is also taking a look after the report of the Swedish deaths.

Still, it is too early to conclude that Red Bull — by far the most popular of a slew of new "energy drinks" according to an industry association — is the cause of the deaths, but it has caused some doctors to evaluate its health effects.

Company Claims It’s Safe

The company says its product is safe. The Red Bull company Web site stresses that "no authority in the world has ever discovered or proven an unhealthy effect in or from Red Bull." It says the levels of caffeine and taurine, which is a naturally occurring amino acid, in the drink make it as safe as a cup of coffee.

"Clearly Red Bull is not dangerous," says Norbert Kraihmer, the general manager of the Red Bull company, which launched the drink in Austria more than a decade ago after buying the non-Asian rights to the mix. "It has been for sale in over 50 countries worldwide, since about 15 years, even longer than that, and never ever anybody has been able to prove any harmful effects of Red Bull on health."

Red Bull arrived in the United States four years ago and has been cleverly marketed to trendsetters by a sales force that targeted hot nightclubs and convenience stores near colleges and gyms. "Red Bull gives you wings!" offers one advertisement.

According to The Beverage Marketing Corporation, Red Bull holds a 65 percent share of the U.S. energy drink market. Last year, Red Bull enjoyed $1 billion in worldwide sales. In the United States, energy drink sales are soaring to an estimated $300 million in 2001.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received no complaints about Red Bull, but nutritionists do warn that mixing it with alcohol can lead to dehydration, heart and kidney problems, can prompt people to drink more than they otherwise would, and have other dangers.

"It's definitely a problem if you are wide-awake drunk," says Audrey Cross of Columbia University School of Public Health. "And that's what it can cause if you're drinking something is a stimulant like a lot of caffeine and mixing that with alcohol."

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