Looking at the massive growth in bottled water consumption, it is apparent that the bottled water companies have been winning the war against tap water. And in one of their latest campaign tactics, the bottled water industry is now arguing in debates, Congressional testimony, advertising, and media campaigns that the growth of bottled water sales doesn't come at the expense of tap water, but rather other commercial beverages. In 2003, Stephen Kay, spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association, told E—The Environmental Magazine that "bottled water's competition is soft drinks, not tap water." 24 In 2006, he told the Chicago Tribune's "Morning Call" column that "bottled water's competition is not your faucet but the soft drinks, juices, sport drinks, and teas that people buy while they're on the go." 25
The industry continues to push this argument. In August 2007, they bought full-page ads in the New York Times and other papers. "Whether it comes from a faucet or a bottle, drinking water is an easy step people can take to lead a healthier lifestyle. So, as far as we're concerned, the drink in everyone's purse, backpack, and lunch box should be water." In December 2007, in testimony to the U.S. Congress, the IBWA President, Joe Doss, said, "Consumers also choose bottled water over other beverages because it does not contain calories, caffeine, sugar, artificial flavors or colors, alcohol and other ingredients."26 Bottled water consumption is good, the industry argues, because the growth of bottled water sales has come not at the expense of tap water, but of other beverages.
This is an intriguing and potentially powerful argument, except that it is false. After hearing the industry repeat this claim over and over, I went and looked up the actual numbers. Are we really drinking bottled water instead of soft drinks and other consumer beverages, as the industry argues, or are we actually drinking less tap water? The U.S. Department of Commerce collects and publishes excellent data on beverage consumption. Contrary to what the bottled water industry argues, the numbers show that we are buying more bottled water and carbonated soft drinks, and drinking less of everything else, including milk, coffee, tea, fruit juices, beer, wine, hard alcohol, and especially tap water.
Statistics clearly show the growth in consumption of both soft drinks and bottled water at the expense of everything else we drink. Indeed, between 1980 and 2006, data on beverage consumption reveals that on average, each of us is actually drinking around 36 gallons per year less tap water now. With what have we replaced this water? Soda and bottled water. Over this same period of time, our consumption of carbonated soft drinks has grown by 17 gallons per person per year, our consumption of bottled water has grown by 25 gallons per person per year, and our purchases of all other beverages, including milk, juices, beer, tea, coffee, and hard liquor have dropped by 6 gallons per year.
The beverage companies are winning the war on tap water. As long as people can be made to fear tap water, they will seek out alternatives they think offer more safety. But we have to ask: is bottled water actually any safer? What do we know about what's actually in our tap water—or in the bottles of water we buy? And how safe is it to drink?