Studies of the health effects of Taser International’s stun guns are 75 percent more likely to deem the weapons safe when researchers have ties to the company, a new report concludes.
Cardiologists at UC San Francisco's medical school examined 50 published studies that tried to determine whether Tasers are harmful.
The weapons have become hugely popular with police agencies as a less lethal, if controversial, alternative to firearms.
The UCSF report said 96 percent of the studies funded by Taser International, or conducted by affiliated researchers, found the stun guns were unlikely to be harmful or were not harmful.
Independent research reached the same conclusion 55 percent of the time.
“We found it was quite a dramatic influence,” Dr. Byron Lee, one of the study’s authors, said of Taser International.
The company, however, strongly disputed the alleged bias. Steve Tuttle, a Taser International spokesman, said the company takes measures to protect against skewed research findings.
“The analyses of TASER-funded studies are done by an independent statistician,” Tuttle wrote in response to questions, “so the researchers do not have influence on how the data is presented.”
Some of the problems with “Taser-affiliated” studies involve methodology that an independent statistician cannot offset. Lee said he saw research where a stun gun’s electric charge was delivered solely through subjects’ backs.
“The back is not as close to the heart as a Taser shock might be if it was delivered in the front,” Lee said. “That might lead to a conclusion that Taser is safer than it really is.”
Independent research findings, which were 27 of the 50 reviewed, provide a muddled answer to the question of whether Taser weapons deliver a harmful electrical charge, the UCSF researchers found. Out of those 27 studies, 12 concluded the devices are harmful, or probably harmful.
A key recommendation in this report, which has not yet been accepted for publication, is that readers “should consider funding and author affiliations” when reviewing research into Taser safety.
But a paper published this year in the Journal of Emergency Medicine assessed the existing body of research on the topic and found little cause for concern.
In the course of that examination, researchers weighed studies based on their quality and size. Funding source was not a factor.
The overall conclusion was unambiguous:
The current human literature has not found evidence of dangerous laboratory abnormalities, physiologic changes, or immediate or delayed cardiac ischemia or dysrhythmias after exposure to (conducted energy weapons, or CEWs) electrical discharges of up to 15 (seconds). Therefore, the current medical literature does not support routine performance of laboratory studies, (electrocardiograms), or prolonged (emergency department) observation or hospitalization for ongoing cardiac monitoring after CEW exposure in an otherwise asymptomatic awake and alert patient.