Dumb and Dumber: Freakonomics on Bottled Water Bans

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In her book Bottlemania, Elizabeth Royte quoted a Pepsico marketing VP in 2000 talking about water: "when we are done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes." About four years later, universities started looking at banning bottled water from campuses. By 2007, cities like San Francisco, Chicago and Toronto were considering it.

Now in 2009, practitioners of the dismal science get around to addressing the issue. Upon being informed that a campus is considering a ban, Daniel Hamermesh of the New York Times Freakonomics column says pshaw:

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In the future, Brawndo will flow from the water fountains, like in Idiocracy

This ban may well simply lead to substitution from bottled water to bottled soft drinks, with no reduction in pollution. Worse still, people will be substituting caloric soft drinks for zero-calorie water, so that the ban will help increase obesity among students and staff.

University bureaucrats clearly don’t think about substitution by consumers, or about unintended consequences of quantity restrictions. Even by well-known standards of bureaucratic shortsightedness, this one is a real achievement.

A lot of people have said exactly the same thing, usually in 2004 or 2005 when the subject first arose. It was pointed out that

a) Coke doesn't come from a tap, so it is hard to compare it to water;
b) There are refillable bottles and students understand how to carry them and fill them and drink from them. They are not stupid.
c) Bottled water is sold by the same companies that manufacture and sell soft drinks. An economist might ask why they are fighting the bans at all if it were indeed the case that customers would just switch to Coke.

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People aren't stupid. Yet.

As Inside the bottle noted:

There is simply no evidence to support the claim that individuals will return to drinking unhealthy soda beverages if bottled water is not available. We are not talking about removing water as a beverage option for people. Any action that includes the removal of bottled water should encourage the consumption of tap water. The truth is that the choice is not only between bottled water and soda beverages, the real choice is between private goods and public water.

I have been looking for real research into what happens when bottle bans are imposed; do soft drink sales go up dramatically? If anyone knows of any please let us know in comments.

More Freakonomics in TreeHugger:

Freakonomics on Global Warming
Freakonomics on Bike Safety
Freakonomists on the Merits of Local Food

Tags: Bottled Water | Economics


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