David v. Goliath: How Water Beat Big Soda

For the first time since the 1980s, Americans are drinking more water than soda.  Industry tracker Beverage Digest recently released data showing that the average amount of water that people drink has increased 38 percent since soda consumption peaked in 1998.  Now, we drink an average of 58 gallons a year, with bottled water contributing to about 21 of those gallons.

Why has water replaced soda as our beverage of choice?  Sorry Mayor Bloomberg, it has nothing to do with your proposed legislation.   Experts credit convenient, soda-style packaging and effective public health campaigns.

Most public health campaigns have been created by non-profits and local health departments.  In a David versus Goliath story, these organizations have managed to beat out the big budgets and pop stars associated with Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola (No need to feel bad for them, though.  Coca-Cola owns Dasani, VitaminWater and SmartWater.  Pepsi-Cola owns Aquafina, Propel and SoBe Lifewater.).

How did water beat soda?  By using five tips that can be applied to just about any public health campaign:

  1. Start early:  Healthy habits start early on.  That’s why so many campaigns are focused on school-age children, and specifically, school cafeterias and vending machines.  For instance, the Boston Public Health Commission has created sample policies and materials for use in schools.  California Food Policy Advocates have even researched water dispenser options and associated costs for school cafeterias to make change easier to implement. 
  2. Create interactive tools to help people measure their progress: The “Water First: Think Your Drink” website, created by the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition, offers interactive tools such as “HydroMe” a customized virtual character that gives kids a fun way to see the effects of drinking water.  Kids (and parents) can log what they drink from day to day and the tool will display teaspoons of sugar, calories and caffeine in a journal or graph format.
  3. Don’t just educate – engage:  Rapping about water?  One San Francisco teen won a contest by doing just that.  His video, “Drinkin’ That Water”, is one example of how a public health campaign engaged a teen to help educate his peers.  By engaging users in content generation, campaigns develop advocates for their initiative.
  4. Solicit a formal commitment to action:  The “Water First: Think Your Drink” campaign features the “Take the Plunge” pledge, which asks people to commit to specific goals.  This includes the number of glasses of water and cutting sweetened and caffeinated drinks to a certain number per day.  When people make a commitment, they are more likely to stick to it.  If people have the opportunity to post their goals and share their progress via social media, it has the potential to increase the effectiveness of the campaign by creating an element of positive peer pressure.
  5. Influence the influencers:  Children, especially very young ones, are influenced by their parents and caregivers.  With that in mind, the Soda Free Summer campaign, a project of the Alameda County Public Health Department, distributes free copies of the Drink Water!’ Said the Otter toolkit with letters to parents/guardians, stickers, posters, and activity sheets to preschools, child care centers, caretakers and parents of children 5-and-under throughout the Bay Area.

While increasing water consumption is a huge step in improving overall health and wellness, many proponents encourage taking it one step further and drinking tap water instead of bottled water.  If that sounds interesting, you can download New York City’s Water-On-The-Go app to figure out where to locate the city’s “award-winning, high-quality, great-tasting, healthy tap water” at portable fountains.  Mayor Bloomberg will be glad that you did.


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