P.S. Tap water counts, too

Much debate is stirring about First Lady Michelle Obama's launch of the Drink Up campaign.

Sep 26th, 2013
Angela Godwin

Who would have imagined that urging kids to drink more water would become a point of controversy? But that's exactly what's happened in the wake of First Lady Michelle Obama's launch of the Drink Up campaign.

The campaign is being spearheaded by the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), in conjunction with a host of public and private sector partners.

Through the initiative, Mrs. Obama aims to encourage families and kids to lead healthier lives. "I've come to realize that if we were going to take just one step to make ourselves and our families healthier, probably the single best thing we could do is to simply drink more water," Mrs. Obama said.

The First Lady kicked off the initiative in the town of Watertown, Wis., which was selected not only for its apt moniker but also because the town has twice won accolades for best tasting water in the state.

Watertown, along with other municipal entities - including the cities of Chicago and Houston, and L.A. County - are supporters of the Drink Up campaign. Reportedly, these cities will use creative materials and logos "to inspire their residents to drink more water."

"We plan to incorporate the First Lady's messaging into a number of big initiatives," said Dr. Paul Simon, Director of the Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention for L.A. County's Department of Public Health. One of these is the Choose Health L.A. program, made possible by funding from the CDC's Community Transformation Grant program. "The grant covers a broad range of work, part of which is focused on improving nutrition and working to incorporate nutrition standards into city food and beverage purchases."

The Drink Up missive seems clear and simple: Water is a healthful beverage choice that we could all use a little more of - especially our kids, a quarter of whom, according to the CDC, don't drink any water at all on a given day.

Nonetheless, it's managed to attract criticism for a couple of reasons. First, it's what the First Lady doesn't say: although the campaign's message implies that the drinking of water is meant to replace the drinking of sugary beverages like soda, it is never explicitly phrased that way. Second, there is apparently much debate about how much water should be consumed on a daily basis: Six glasses? Eight? Half your body weight in ounces?

But I rather think the most compelling weakness of the Drink Up campaign is its endorsement (intended or not) of bottled water. True, there are four municipalities and two "tap station" manufacturers backing the initiative. But the other 35 or so sponsors include the American Beverage Association, the International Bottled Water Association, and some fifteen bottled water brands (Dasani, Aquafina, Poland Spring, Nestle, and Evian to name a few). In support of Drink Up, these companies will carry the campaign logo on nearly 300 million packs of bottled water and more than half a billion bottles.

Even with the projected 10,000 reusable water bottles and 10,000 outdoor public taps also expected to sport the Drink Up logo, I can't help feeling that the 52,000 public water systems that collect, treat, and distribute clean, safe drinking water every single day in this country are but a footnote in the Drink Up messaging.

Dr. Simon said he, too, was concerned about the over-promotion of bottled water, especially given the environmental burden that accompanies it. "But," he said, "there is interest in increasing the availability of tap water and we'll be meeting with a broad range of partners in the next few weeks to discuss how to better promote it."

In her address to the people of Watertown, Mrs. Obama said: "All over this country, you can turn on the faucet and get clean, safe, healthy water that tastes great. But ... because water is so basic, because it is so plentiful, sometimes we just forget about it."

I hope the Drink Up campaign hasn't done just that.

Angela Godwin
Chief Editor, WaterWorld
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