Excerpt: 'Bottled & Sold' By Peter H. Gleick

In the fall of 2007 I attended the IBWA annual convention in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is a pretty incongruous place to hold a bottled water convention. Planted in the heart of one of the driest regions in the United States, it has very limited access to water. Yet the IBWA's major social event is a golf tournament played on water-intensive grass that consumes precious, limited water. The bottled water convention itself is a cross between a pep rally, a political campaign meeting, and a how-to seminar for individuals hoping to cash in on the bottled water craze. I wandered from session to session, from discussions of marketing strategies to closed-door meetings on how to deal with new regulatory efforts by federal agencies. I listened to talks on how to counter the efforts of anti–bottled water activists and watched demonstrations of the latest machines for bottling water. The culmination of the convention was the keynote presentation of Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which promotes a libertarian, free-market agenda.14 Smith extolled the virtues of a world where business entrepreneurs could make money selling water in bottles. The problem, Smith told me afterward, without a hint of irony, was that water "suffers most from being treated as a common property resource." Smith believes that "water policy could benefit greatly from exploring the strategies that have been used to produce oil." 15

It is this belief that water is fundamentally no different than oil or any other private commodity that lies at the heart of the controversy over selling water. A few months after the IBWA convention, Smith's Competitive Enterprise Institute launched a special project called "Enjoy Bottled Water" in which they criticize the safety of tap water, ridicule opponents of bottled water, and promote the industry's merits. "Bottled water is substantially different from tap water," the CEI website declares. "When compared to bottled water, risks appear to be somewhat higher for tap water. . . . Available data indicates that bottled water has a better safety record." The CEI is so ideologically anti-regulation that the site says, "The fact that anyone would want to ban or regulate a healthy and safe option like bottled water is really absurd." 16 It may come as no surprise to note that Coca-Cola, maker of Dasani bottled water, was the largest single supporter of CEI's annual fundraising dinner in 2008. 17

The campaign against municipal tap water has been more than just words. In 2001, documents found on a Coca-Cola company website revealed that it had a formal program to actively discourage restaurant customers from drinking tap water. Working with the Olive Garden restaurant chain, Coca-Cola developed a six-step program to help the restaurant reduce what they call "tap water incidence"—the unprofitable problem of customers drinking tap water rather than ordering revenue-producing beverages. "Some 20 percent of consumers drink tap water exclusively in Casual Dining restaurants," the program lamented. "This trend significantly cuts into retailer profits. . . . Research was conducted to better understand why tap water consumption is so prevalent and why consumers are making this beverage choice. . . . This research provides the valuable insight and understanding needed to convert water drinkers to profit-producing beverages."18

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