The Private Rationality of Bottled Water Drinking?

by on February 7, 2014 at 3:59 am in Data Source, Food and Drink | Permalink

That is a new paper by W. Kip Viscusi, Joel C. Huber, and Jason Bell, the abstract is here:

This article examines evidence for the private rationality of decisions to choose bottled water using a large, nationally representative sample. Consumers are more likely to believe that bottled water is safer or tastes better if they have had adverse experiences with tap water or live in states with more prevalent violations of EPA water quality standards. Perceptions of superior safety, taste, and convenience of bottled water boost consumption of bottled water. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to drink bottled water due to their relatively greater exposure to unsafe water and greater risk beliefs. The coherent network of experiences, beliefs, and actions is consistent with rational consumer choice.

That is rationality at the margin, of course, as the entire practice of bottled water in developed countries strikes me as not rational for most people.  Tap water is fine and to me even tastes better.

Hat tip goes to www.bookforum.com.

Alexei Sadeski February 7, 2014 at 4:41 am

Tyler,

I’ve had some disgusting tasting tap water in some of the dryer parts of the southwest US. The Northeast seems to taste pretty good.

If the tap stuff tastes like dirt, chlorine, or sulphur… I’m drinking bottled.

Steve Sailer February 7, 2014 at 5:05 am

New York City’s water is delicious. A running joke in Gore Vidal’s “Burr” is that when the elderly Aaron Burr runs out of things to boast about, he always returns to bragging about the terrific water system he constructed for New York. And you can’t really blame him.

Roy February 7, 2014 at 8:59 pm

Of course Burr’s water system was awful and a cholera vector. It consisted of stagnant pond and a single pump, but in the days when corporations were defined by their charters it meant Chase Manhattan had a national charter.

The Croton aqueduct and NYC’s excellent water will built in the teeth of Burr’s Manhattan Co.

Rahul February 7, 2014 at 6:09 am

I’ve had no reason to drink bottled water anywhere in the US. The developing world’s a different story. Europe (esp. Germany) is also a different story for the silly reason that they make other forms of drinking water so inaccessible.

Rob February 7, 2014 at 6:53 am

What do you mean by Europe making other forms of drinking water inaccessible?

Slocum February 7, 2014 at 7:25 am

I’d assume he means the standard European practice of serving bottled rather than tap water in restaurants.

Rahul February 7, 2014 at 7:39 am

….yes, and few or no drinking fountains.

prior_approval February 7, 2014 at 7:46 am

Not to mention the thoroughly delicious German practice of serving varieties of ‘Schorle’ – carbonated, generally regional mineral water mixed with generally regional apple juice or white wine (Rotwein Schorle is probably better left alone).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schorle

Note, I do live next to the region that prefers two thirds wine and one third Sprudel (carbonated mineral water), and that was my first exposure to a Weinschorle, three decades ago. One assumes that Prof. Cowen has enjoyed the same, though possibly not in Freiburg in the summer, which can actually be hotter than NoVa, though not as humid.

Rob February 7, 2014 at 8:21 am

It’s true that if my only access to water were through restaurants, then I wouldn’t be happy.

Norman Pfyster February 7, 2014 at 10:41 am

The tap water in Florida is often undrinkable. Orlando was the worst I had. When I lived in North Carolina, the tap water was nasty. I would fill up a container, let it air out in the refrigerator, and drink from the container.

Chris L February 7, 2014 at 11:29 am

This is basically what I was coming to say. The hard water and amount of minerals present in the water in Florida causes all the public water-fountains to be covered in thick layers of rust or oxidized minerals that make the taste distinguishable and often unpleasant, so often I am left with no choice but to bring my own bottled water

Sean P. February 7, 2014 at 1:11 pm

My experience in Miami was that just about every fancy restaurant would serve filtered or sparkling water rather than tap water. Cheaper places all sold Perrier by the bottle.

Steve Sailer February 7, 2014 at 4:48 am

My vague impression is that the Gulf War of 1991 really boosted the idea of drinking water from plastic bottles among consumers. Before then, bottled water wasn’t terribly sexy. But, the U.S. military made a fetish out of keeping American troops fully hydrated, so CNN’s coverage of the triumphant American military during those six weeks was like one giant product placement for plastic bottles of water.

Marian Kechlibar February 7, 2014 at 6:50 am

The meme was probably of local origin. The Iraqi Republican Guards were, as elite units, provided with ample amounts of bottled water. Already in the Iraq-Iran war 1980-1988. It was part of the perks that came with being a Republican Guard soldier.

The decision makes sense. The region is extremely hot and temperatures in closed military vehicles under the scorching sun are equivalent to a sauna. If you are soldier in full battle clothes, you will probably sweat out 10+ litres a day. So, it makes sense to keep the crews well hydrated. The alternative is a severe sunstroke or death.

And bottled water is usually sterile or at least safe. It is much harder to keep big reservoirs safe from disease.

chuck martel February 7, 2014 at 7:52 am

I’ve never seen the words “Republican Guard” without the appended adjective “elite”.

JWatts February 7, 2014 at 9:54 am

“The meme was probably of local origin.”

I believe Steve is referring to the amount of time that CNN devoted to the great lengths the American military went to so that they could ensure that US troops had plenty of water, for just the reasons you site. I don’t recall any news stories on the Iraqi Republican Guards water drinking habits.

Ramon Tetas February 7, 2014 at 5:02 am

The funny thing is when they sell bottled tap water (Dasani, etc).

Alexei Sadeski February 7, 2014 at 11:54 am

That’s not funny. That’s not ironic.

If the tap water in my area is disgusting, I’m overjoyed at the opportunity to buy great tasting tap water from a different area.

Steve Sailer February 7, 2014 at 5:02 am

An often overlooked downside to things like bottled water is that buying liquids in bulk almost requires that the shopper own a vehicle: water weighs a pint a pound and therefore it’s practically impossible for a mom to manhandle a family’s worth of bottled water home on foot or on bicycle. These days everybody talks about all the advantages of walkability and how much a family could save if they only had one car instead of two and so forth, but few have changed their shopping patterns to accommodate their talk. Bottled water is the backbreaker.

In general, a week’s worth of groceries has gotten a lot heavier per person over the last 50 years. For example, in the 1960s, my mother bought Tang at the grocery store and mixed it up with tap water at home. In the 1970s she upgraded to frozen concentrated orange juice and added three parts tap water at home. In the 1980s-90s, she upgraded to a carton of orange juice. Quality improved with each upgrade, but heaviness went up too, and along with that dependence upon having a car for shopping trips.

Buying, say, three gallons of bottled water is of course more extreme than buying a half gallon of orange juice, since the taste differential is smaller and the consumption level is greater, but lots of people do it.

Marian Kechlibar February 7, 2014 at 6:53 am

In Europe, some hypermarkets provide home delivery service for as little as 3 Eur. See Tesco Online. This is a perfect service, everything heavy is literally delivered to your door and you do not waste time driving to the supermarket, shopping there and driving back.

chuck martel February 7, 2014 at 7:55 am

Does that mean that you’d be paying 3 Eur. to sit at home and watch re-runs of Champions League games?

Marian Kechlibar February 7, 2014 at 8:55 am

Well, it depends, I usually practice guitar playing in the meantime.

But the fact that I am liberated from the hated shopping activity is worth much more.

John Thacker February 7, 2014 at 11:23 am

An often overlooked downside to things like bottled water is that buying liquids in bulk almost requires that the shopper own a vehicle

Pretty sure that Culligan still does home delivery of water, both in small bottles and large containers for home water coolers.

TMC February 7, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Went through a period where you’d would see water coolers in businesses.
Haven’t see that in about 10 years though. I live in an area with good water though.

Steve-O February 7, 2014 at 12:40 pm

This, along with a desire to cut calories, is why I drink tap water and coffee 95% of the time. Also why drink more liquor as less beer than I otherwise would.

prior_approval February 7, 2014 at 5:34 am

‘as the entire practice of bottled water in developing countries strikes me as not rational for most people’

Such a fascinating fragment with so many interpretations –

1. This is falsely phrased, and should read ‘developed countries’

2. Acknowledges just how prevalent corruption may be in ‘developing countries,’ meaning that bottled water is just as likely to be bottled tap water. Though that also applies to developed countries, without the addition of the modifier ‘corruption.’*

3, Dismisses the public water supply in extensive parts of China and the former Soviet Union, as neither country is ‘developing.’

* ‘Prior to the launch, an article in The Grocer trade magazine had mentioned that the source of the Dasani brand water was in fact treated tap water from Sidcup, a suburban development in London. By early March 2004, the mainstream press had picked up the story[8] and it became widely reported that Sidcup tap water, after being processed by reverse osmosis, had been remineralized, bottled and sold under the Dasani brand name in the UK.[4] Although Coca-Cola never implied that the water was being sourced from a spring or other natural source, they marketed it as being especially “pure”. This led the Food Standards Agency to request Hillingdon trading standards officers to launch an investigation into whether the claim was accurate.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dasani#United_Kingdom

Alexei Sadeski February 7, 2014 at 11:58 am

1) What’s wrong with Dasani serving tap water? Seems a bizarre objection.

2) Developing nation consumption of tap water irrational due to cost.

Rahul February 7, 2014 at 3:06 pm

The Dasani saga was hilarious. They even won an Ignoble Prize for it I think.

Essentially they took tap water which was perfectly safe to drink in the first place, then ozonized it which happened to convert a normally innocuous trace contaminant into a carcinogen.

So you were essentially paying them to make safe water hazardous, then bottle it up and sell it to you at a 10x markup.

NPW February 7, 2014 at 6:25 am

I get headaches when I drink my local tap water; I feel fine when I drink bottled. So I drink bottled. I have no idea why, but when I visited friends on well water and drank their water I ended up with a savage headache.

For all the people who say Dasani=tap water, take ten seconds out of your day to google reverse osmosis. I suppose you all think saltwater==potable water too.

Marie February 7, 2014 at 9:41 am

Fluoride. Seriously, well water has more of it, not less, often. It’s just in a different form.

dearieme February 7, 2014 at 7:06 am

“The Private Rationality of Bottled Water Drinking?” Shouldn’t that read The Private Rationality of Drinking Bottled Water? Or are all Americans backward going their sentences to write?

chuck martel February 7, 2014 at 7:57 am

Very good.

Yoda February 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

The Force Strong with This One Is.

Richard February 7, 2014 at 10:07 am

+1

Note too that “Bottled Water Drinking” (sic) actually needs a hyphen, i.e., “Bottled-Water Drinking.”

So much academic writing is lamentable. Exhibit #2 is the first sentence of the abstract, which says that people “choose bottled water using a large, nationally representative sample.” Nice dangling modifier.

John Thacker February 7, 2014 at 11:59 am

It’s a common usage of the -ing form in English as a deverbal noun combined with a attributive noun. Quite common in British English as well. Both are discussed in the Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language.

John Thacker February 7, 2014 at 12:04 pm

The BBC has us all beat with “Dawlish pub car park cliff plunge man rescued” in a headline, if you don’t like attributive nouns.

Steve C. February 7, 2014 at 7:56 am

Funny how markets work…..

Gasoline: non-renewable resource, consumer price (including excise taxes, not sales tax) $3.00 per gallon.

Bottled water: renewable resource, consumer price (not including sales tax) $7.50 per gallon.

For the Army, bottled water solves a group problems so large it’s not worth listing here.

Rahul February 7, 2014 at 8:29 am

Purified RO / UV blah blah water is ~30 cents a gallon at the machine. That’s a better comparison to a gas pump?

Brandon February 7, 2014 at 9:45 am

Fresh water is renewable over longer time scales but plenty of fresh water sources have or are being drawn down. Bottling fresh water takes that water from one particular location and distributes it all over the country/world. There’s not a net-loss of water, but there’s definitely a local loss of water and some (most?) of that fresh water will evaporate and then fall into the ocean.

JWatts February 7, 2014 at 10:02 am

“Bottling fresh water takes that water from one particular location and distributes it all over the country/world.”

It’s such a very, very small percentage that the issue is completely trivial.

Brandon February 7, 2014 at 11:31 am

This depends entirely on the scale you’re talking about. It can be up to 100% of a local ecosystem. It can drain local water groundwater supplies, leaving the populations near the bottling plants without access to adequate water supplies.

JWatts February 7, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Well yes, and alligator attacks are awful too. But it’s a small issue to most of the world.

JWatts February 7, 2014 at 1:41 pm

I was probably unnecessarily facetious with the comment above.

I think for the most part, bottling plants don’t come in and suck all the water out of a given local ecosystem. I think this is one of those over-hyped stories that doesn’t have much of an effect on any sizable group of people.

Urso February 7, 2014 at 3:14 pm

I’d guess the opposite – bottled water probably comes from places with a superfluity of fresh water supply.

Brandon February 7, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Setting aside whatever impacts an actual bottling plant may have on the immediate watershed and ecosystems, the more important point is that the idea that fresh water is an unlimited resource is wrong. If you include desalination plants, sure, it’s renewable, but we can’t pull as much fresh water as we want from existing sources with the expectation that they’ll always be replenished.

Jon February 7, 2014 at 8:02 am

Among the variables used in the regressions are people’s statements that they believe bottled water taste better or is safer.
How many people are going to say they drink bottled water because they enjoy paying more for it?

This paper shows a circular definition of rationality–”If I believe my choice as better (e.g. safer, better taste), than it is rational.”

The fact that it shows that people who live in areas with more frequent water problems drink more bottled water just shows a correlation, not that by an objective standard the response is truly rational as opposed to an overeaction.

Bottled water is far more convenient for exercising, especially when I just bottle my own by refilling the bottle at the tap!

Richard February 7, 2014 at 10:10 am

“Especially when I just bottle my own by refilling the bottle at the tap!”

There’s your thread winner.

(Though you bottle-fillers take way too long at the drinking fountain when I’m waiting for just a sip!)

Bill February 7, 2014 at 8:08 am

Washing water bottles and refilling them takes time and when you are on the go it is often easier to grab a water bottle, regardless of how good the tap water tastes.

Jon February 7, 2014 at 9:39 am

I’m the only one who drinks out of mine so I rarely have to wash it. Filling it takes very little time–mostly the time it takes to walk to the sink and back which is no more than it takes to walk to where the bottles would be kept (mine are with my exercise gear). On the other hand if you don’t refill you have to spend time buying the bottles and taking them to the recycling or trash bin.

Brandon Berg February 7, 2014 at 8:29 am

Tap water is fine and to me even tastes better.

I agree in general, but have you really never been to San Diego?

mofo. February 7, 2014 at 8:32 am

The assumption is that bottled water is a replacement for tap water. I think its just as likely that bottled water is a replacement for bottled soda.

You could just as soon ask yourself why people choose bottled soft drinks when they could get the same drink from a fountain. I can think of a number of answers, they prefer one container over another, prefer or dont prefer ice in their drink, the extra effort to prepare a drink from the fountain isnt worth the cost savings, etc.

JWatts February 7, 2014 at 10:03 am

“I think its just as likely that bottled water is a replacement for bottled soda.”

+1

Tom UK February 7, 2014 at 8:35 am

On the rare occasions I buy bottled water I’m normally paying for the convenience of the bottle, not the water. I have a few bottles of water in the car at all times and if I’m out of the house and get thirsty then I might buy a bottle of water. Seems perfectly rational to me.

Brandon February 7, 2014 at 9:43 am

I live in an area that gets fresh, clean, fantastic-tasting Lake Michigan water, yet I still see plenty of people buying cases of bottled water at the grocery store.

Rahul February 7, 2014 at 9:44 am

Ignorance + Paranoia.

mulp February 7, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Tap water === government run === fear the government === fear the water
Bottled water === corporations === worship corporations === worship the bottle

And Freedom corporation is liberty so Freedom industry enhanced water is wonderful because it is corporate.liberty.

Dan River Steam Station === Duke Energy corporation === trusted water enhancer === Danville, Virginia tap water trust enhancement.

“In October, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the EPA must review and revise its waste regulations under the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act. The EPA has never finalized any federal regulations for the disposal of coal ash — the nation’s second-largest industrial waste stream.”

Obama can not be trusted to enforce the laws of Congress!

JWatts February 7, 2014 at 1:43 pm

“Tap water === government run === fear the government === fear the water
Bottled water === corporations === worship corporations === worship the bottle”

Yes, this exactly explains why Liberals never drink bottled water and Conservatives wouldn’t be caught dead drinking water from an actual glass.

As always, mulp, you nailed it!

Rahul February 7, 2014 at 2:08 pm

And libertarians? They dig their own wells? :)

Ak Mike February 7, 2014 at 10:54 pm

Ripper: Have you ever seen a Commie drink a glass of water?
Mandrake: Well, I can’t say I have, Jack.
Ripper: Vodka, that’s what they drink, isn’t it? Never water?
Mandrake: Well, I-I believe that’s what they drink, Jack, yes.
Ripper: On no account will a Commie ever drink water, and not without good reason.
Mandrake: Oh, eh, yes. I, uhm, can’t quite see what you’re getting at, Jack.
Ripper: Water, that’s what I’m getting at, water. Mandrake, water is the source of all life. Seven-tenths of this Earth’s surface is water. Why, do you realize that 70 percent of you is water?
Mandrake: Good Lord!
Ripper: And as human beings, you and I need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids.
Mandrake: Yes. (he begins to chuckle nervously)
Ripper: Are you beginning to understand?

JKB February 7, 2014 at 9:54 am

It is completely ignorant to speak of tap water as being okay without being very specific as to location and source. The variables are just to great. Source, processing, pipe quality and maintenance, home pipe quality and cleanliness. Have you actually tested the water at your tap? Are the chlorine levels still adequate for sanitation? Are minerals and other volatiles being introduced?

And how is the “tap” water okay? Is it palatable when at room temperature? That’s why I drink the bottled water I do, it still tastes okay even when warm. Only after a couple high temp cycles in my truck in the summer does its flavor go off. That isn’t so even with the relatively good tasting tap water I have, which I use for coffee and my Sodastream. I can leave bottled water in my truck except in the hottest of summer. I can have a bottle next to my bed for a week or so and it still be good. Try leaving a bottle of tap water in a warm car for a week. What is the cost of ice production to keep the tap water cold enough to be palatable? How about the time costs to constantly refresh it? What about when it get warm while out doing work, is it still palatable?

derek February 7, 2014 at 10:36 am

Bottled water was the side effect of a very effective campaign by environmental groups to scare people about municipal water quality. Stories of contamination were hyped by the usual suspects. People bought bottled water to be safe. Oops. Now these stories are not hyped, and the dangers of bottled water are.

I don’t believe a word that I hear on the media.

Brandon Berg February 7, 2014 at 11:11 am

Much like how the CSPI overhyped the dangers of saturated fat, leading to the replacement of lard, tallow, and tropical oils with partially hydrogenated shortening. Whoops!

Turkey Vulture February 7, 2014 at 10:40 am

My tap water growing up was well water. It had a lot of sulfur taste. I could deal with it because I was used to it, but any from outside the family couldn’t stand it. Now when I go home I can’t stand it and drink exclusively bottled water.

Damn now I am remembering I had lemonade stands some times. Those poor suckers.

Rahul February 7, 2014 at 2:10 pm

I think they sell small cheap desulfurizers now, kinda like water softner units.

Turkey Vulture February 7, 2014 at 3:53 pm

I will look into this. My mom plans to sell the house soon and I expect the bad water quality to be a significant turnoff to people.

Rahul February 8, 2014 at 6:18 am

Culligan’s Sulfur removal system looks neat. Probably costs $2000 – $3000 or so.

http://www.culligan.com/en-us/d/homes/whole-house-water-filters/sulphur-cleer/

Mark Thorson February 7, 2014 at 10:41 am

I switched from tap to bottled when this place was repiped in copper. There’s a couple of lines of evidence to suggest that copper may be implicated in the etiology of Alzheimer’s disease, though the evidence is very slim. The evidence is much stronger implicating sugar, but for some reason I lost my sweet tooth a dozen years ago when I lost 40 pounds, so that’s not a problem.

I never take mineral supplements that contain copper. Copper deficiency is extremely rare, and almost nobody needs supplemental copper. (The rare exceptions are people on artificial diets for example to treat PKU and people living in areas where the soil contains natural copper chelates.)

Brandon February 7, 2014 at 11:32 am

What are the various pipes and process equipment in the water extraction, treatment and bottling plants made of?

Mark Thorson February 7, 2014 at 1:03 pm

I doubt they’d be using any copper, because that would more expensive and higher maintenance than stainless steel. Brass might be used for valves, but the residence time of the water in the valves or even the pipes of a water purification and bottling plant would be short. The residence time of water in the pipes where I live could be many hours before it gets to me, allowing minerals to be leached from the pipes.

Steve C. February 8, 2014 at 12:15 am

I used to work in a bottling plant. Everything is stainless steel.

Mr. McKnuckles February 7, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Status seeking surely has to be the biggest reason for drinking bottled water (at least in NYC, where tap water tastes far better than anything stored in plastic).

I know it’s silly, but I know guys will order bottled water on dates because they don’t want to be perceived as being cheap by asking for better tasting tap.

Or this. My high school friend’s sister insisted that she would only drink Evian. So her mom would take the same bottle and fill it up every day from the tap. Problem solved. Eventually, she found out she was drinking tap, but too embarrassed to ever demand bottled water again.

Marcos February 7, 2014 at 1:27 pm

And what’s the ratinale for people that drink bottled wather in countries where tap water is strictly regulated, but botled water has a history of harmful contamination (Brazil)?

Matt Harmon February 7, 2014 at 2:09 pm

I had been drinking tap water for years until recently, when a chemical company polluted the water supply around Charleston, WV. There have been no fatalities and only a few hospitalizations, but the public is psychologically scarred. I wonder when residents, including myself, will feel like drinking tap water again. Even though the chemical is likely flushed out of our water system by now, it remains vivid in the public imagination. I’d like to see data on bottled water sales in this area over the next few months and years to see the lasting impact of this event.

GiT February 7, 2014 at 3:23 pm

Is it really “likely flushed out” by now? My understanding is there are still hospitalizations and school closings occurring related to the water issues.

Matt Harmon February 9, 2014 at 2:20 pm

This chemical produces an odor even at very low concentrations, so there have been intermittent school closings. All of the hospitalizations have been related to things like head aches, nausea, or rashes – symptoms that could be contracted independent of exposure to this chemical or even due to the increased levels of chlorine the water company is introducing to the water supply. If you’re looking for news on this issue, you will likely find it because our local media have so little else to talk about. They can milk this issue for ratings indiffenitely or go back to talking about the weather for 20 minutes at a time.
Having said all that, I still think it is perfectly rational to drink bottled water. I will continue to drink bottled water. It’s simply a hard blunder to forgive or forget.

mkt February 8, 2014 at 1:07 am

Exactly, I’m amazed that it took this long for someone to mention Charleston. Quite rational for them to drink bottled.

I do agree with Tyler though that most of the consumption of bottled water in developed countries is, if not irrational, at any rate needless. And for those of you with bad-tasting tap water: water filters. Like Brita, or other brands. Either attached to your faucet, or put into a large carafe that you put in your refrigerator.

I buy bottled water for the same reasons that I occasionally use an ATM with high fees: because I forgot to keep myself supplied (with water or cash) and need to pay for the convenience of getting water/cash right now. So I buy maybe 4 bottles of water per year. When it’s empty, I continue to use it as my water source by re-filling it with tap water, they’ll last months or years.

Nathan W February 8, 2014 at 1:43 am

In places where the water just tastes bad, I drink iced tea (or some other mix), which is cheaper and tastier than bottled water. If the water is fairly like to be unhygienic then I drink bottled water.

I usually fill bottles with tap water because bottles are a convenient way to carry water.

Peter Russell February 8, 2014 at 2:44 am

Mineral (bottled) water contains enormously beneficial trace elements often not found in tap water. (Who’s smart now?)

Marie February 8, 2014 at 10:06 am

When we moved to a home with well water I insisted the kids drink store water (not the stuff with minerals, salts, etc.), once we tested the well it turns out the minerals, etc., make it very healthy to drink, even if you factor in things like natural arsenic and a little too much fluoride. I am sure my husband groans at all the money he’ll never get back on that one. Minerals are good things to have in your water.

jorod February 9, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Tap water is full of chlorine ad god knows what else. Good old fashion water from a deep well is great with me.

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