But its success raises questions as to the public health obligations of for-profit companies.
Dr. Roxane Hovland, a University of Tennessee at Knoxville professor who specializes in advertising regulation, says the ethical gray area is tricky to navigate because the FDA can’t regulate energy drinks the way it does other potentially unsafe products like alcohol and tobacco. Unlike its rivals Monster and Five-Hour Energy, which are considered dietary supplements, Red Bull markets itself in the category of “conventional beverages.” As the New York Times reported in 2012, “while producers of energy drinks that market them as dietary supplements… must notify the F.D.A. about death and injuries claiming a possible link to their products, companies that market energy drinks as beverages do not.”
“Just as with other potentially dangerous products, we have warring impulses as to their marketing,” Hovland told The Huffington Post. “On one hand, we want to be protected from unscrupulous marketers, but on the other hand, we are a country of individualists who… often resent the intrusion of government into private decisions.” So the onus placed on university administrators to mediate energy drink marketing on campus is quite tricky.
What’s worse, said Hovland, university administrators can’t openly criticize companies because they risk claims of defamation. She suggested, as one solution, that they issue cautionary messages to combat the aggressive marketing.
When reached for comment, a Red Bull PR representative said, “We never talk about our marketing practices.”