UCSF heart doctors uncover significant bias in Taser safety studies

Caridologists find that current Taser-related safety research may be biased due to ties to the devices’ manufacturer.

Byron Lee, UC San Francisco

Byron Lee, UC San Francisco

The ongoing controversy surrounding the safety of using electrical stun guns took a new turn today when a team of cardiologists at the University of California, San Francisco, announced findings suggesting that much of the current Taser-related safety research may be biased due to ties to the devices’ manufacturer, Taser International Inc.

In a research abstract presented at the Heart Rhythm Society’s 32nd Annual Scientific Sessions at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, study author Dr. Peyman N. Azadani, research associate at UCSF’s Department of Medicine, Division of Cardiac Electrophysiology, and senior author Dr. Byron K. Lee, associate professor of medicine in UCSF’s cardiology division, set out to gauge the accuracy of 50 published studies on the potential dangers of using Taser products. Lee directs the Electrophysiology Laboratories and Clinics in UCSF’s Cardiology Division, and first published research on the safety of law enforcement use of electrical stun guns in 2009.

The new study’s authors report that among the product safety studies they analyzed, the likelihood of a study concluding Taser devices are safe was 75 percent higher when the studies were either funded by the manufacturer or written by authors affiliated with the company, than when studies were conducted independently.

Azadani, Lee and three colleagues divided Taser safety study outcomes into four categories: harmful, probably harmful, unlikely harmful and not harmful. Of the 50 articles studied, 23 were funded by Taser International Inc. or written by an author affiliated with the company. Nearly all (96 percent) of the Taser-supported articles concluded the devices were either “unlikely harmful” (26 percent) or “not harmful” (70 percent). In contrast, of the 27 studies not affiliated with Taser International, 55 percent found that Tasers are either “unlikely harmful” (29 percent) or “not harmful” (26 percent).

Tasers are the most popular brand of electrical stun guns, used primarily by law enforcement agencies to incapacitate combative suspects. The devices, also marketed for home use, deliver electrical pulses that stimulate the nervous system and cause involuntary muscle contractions. Advocates of using such conductive energy devices, or CEDs, say that they are effective and cause only temporary physical symptoms. Critics and scientists have raised concerns about the potential dangers of using Taser devices, particularly on pregnant women, the elderly and very young, and individuals with underlying medical conditions.

The UCSF-led research findings have been submitted for publication but are not yet published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The study’s other authors are Dr. Zian H. Tseng and Dr. Gregory M. Marcus, both assistant professors of medicine at UCSF School of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, and Simon Ermakov, BA. The scientists conclude that when reading about Tasers, the public should consider the funding source and author affiliation when evaluating an article’s safety conclusions.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.

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