Monday, August 24, 2009

Troubles with Encouraging Water Consumption

A recent Boston Globe article highlighted the increasing body of research demonstrating the link between American's increasing sweetened beverage consumption and obesity, as well as some local intervention efforts to change drinking behaviors. As these efforts continue to revamp with a number of sugar-free drink campaigns gearing up locally, a question about message and framing comes to mind.

In the Cambridge study cited by the Globe, the kids were given bottled water and diet sodas, iced teas, lemonade, and punch reduced their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by 82% (no surprise there), and "the one-third who weighed the most at the start lost an average of three or four pounds."

However, one must look at how this type of intervention would play out in real life. A recent conversation with an advocate from Corporate Accountability International's Value the Meal campaign against fast food companies, highlighted to me the difficulties in making these kinds of campaigns jibe with CAI's other campaign of Think Outside the Bottle to encourage individuals, communities and larger entities to switch from bottled water to tap water. Often bottled water is presented as the "easy" alternative to soda or other sweetened drinks, thus increasing the number of people drinking bottled water.

Especially with kids, it is often harder to make the switch to tap water, which may have a stigma associated with it, even in locations where its quality, based on mandatory testing, is far superior to that of bottled water.

Of course, this complicates efforts to change the product mix among corporations such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which produce both sweetened beverages and bottled water. Although they have come out strong against efforts to pinpoint sweetened beverage consumption as a leading cause of obesity, they would be most sensitive to sales, and presumably change their product mix to more water and less soda if the market "demands" it. What happens if the market switches to tap water? Do they come out and lobby harder or change their marketing strategies?

Update: Boston Globe reports that bottled water sales are down due to the recession, rather than due to common sense.


Ashley said...

When I was a kid I remember lining up at the water fountain before and after recess.

Obviously these companies are looking at way to change their products and protect their bottom lines.

The argument about "ease" doesn't sit well with me. I carry a steel water bottle for water that I fill up at fountains or sinks. It is easy. I also carry a coffee cup when I buy coffee. I don't find it difficult or feel that it impedes on my day. I actually feel good about it.

Couldn't we just give the kids their own bottles? They can personalize them by adding stickers or other decor. I am also one of those crazies who think that vending machines shouldn't be in public schools. They are students, not consumers. Maybe our education system would be better if we treated them as such.

The Almond Doctor said...

I agree with you Ashley. Removing vending machines and allowing kids to carry refillable water bottles seems to be a valid solution.

I remember a in my high school of a student who use to carry alcohol in a refillable bottle - after he was caught we were only allowed to buy bottled liquids from the vending machine. I don't think this should be the reason to prevent the use of refillable bottles, but it is a concern of school operators.

On the point of the vending machines - they provide the schools a lot of money so removal would meet resistance. Often these monies are used for after school programs that are not funded by the state/county gov'ts.

jb said...

Great post! I conducted an ad hoc study this week along these lines. You may be intersted: