Soda vs Bottled water: Who is losing?

Sarah Salvadore

The article I’ve chosen to present is one from Upshot, The New York Times. Titled ‘The Decline of Big Soda’, the headline speaks for itself. Author Margot Sanger-Katz investigates the decline of soda sales in the city of Philadelphia. She reports that the state has seen a huge spike in sales of bottled water instead.

water is gaining

Five years ago, the Mayor of Philadelphia proposed to impose a tax on aerated beverages, on grounds of it being unhealthy and a major contributor to obesity. But this move was met with stiff opposition from the soda lobbyists. As a result, the soda tax proposal was never passed.

Despite anti-obesity campaigner’s failure to impose a tax on soda companies, looks like they are currently winning the battle, as the sales of soda in Philadelphia has plummeted by more than 25%. According to Sanger-Katz’s article, the sale of water is on the rise. If forecasts by Beverage Marketing is anything to go by, the sale of bottled water is set to over take soda in 2017, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

wsjIn the past 10 years, the industry has seen a steep change in per capita consumption of bottled water. Data available from Beverage Marketing shows the per capita consumption of bottled water being 28.5% in 2008 to 30.8% in 2012. The year 2008 to 2009 saw a decline in sales, but it began to pick up again in 2010.

The article talks about the many factors contributing to the fall in sale of soda. First, the school district in Philadelphia, forbids the sale of sugary beverages in schools and limits their availability in public vending machines. Secondly, Philly has the country’s strictest menu-labelling laws. The third reason for the cause of decline in sales is attributed to public health awareness ads, that the health department of Philadelphia ran on TV and radio for two whole years

But to attribute the decline of soda to these factors alone can be problematic. The availability of soda is limited around schools, but students can easily purchase them elsewhere. Also, having strict labelling laws does not mean consumers look at the labelling before buying the product. If you like soda, you will buy it irrespective of what the labelling warns you of.

But what about the health awareness ad? How much of an impact did these ads running on TV and radio have on the decline of soda? I turned to publicly available data and found one on Gallup. Gallup collects data based on public opinion and according to them, since 2002 people are becoming increasingly aware of excluding sugary drinks from their diet. In 2002 the percentage was around 41% and in 2014 it jumped to 61%. I’ve highlighted this change in a bar graph.

drinking soda

So l think public awareness ads really did have an impact on fall in sales of soda.

Anti-obesity campaigners also claim that soda is the major cause of obesity in the country, as it is a source for high calories. But according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the foods with a higher calorie count than sodas are cheeseburgers (313 calories), hamburgers (265 cals), French fries (487 cals), ½ a cup vanilla ice cream (137 cals) and even a low fat ice cream cone (146 cals). Whereas a regular cola can has around 136 cals.

A meal consisting of a burger (cheese/ham), French fries, ice cream and soda, will see the latter contributing to the lowest percentage of calories (like shown in the pie chart). So that’s another claim that can be disputed.


Also, soda is not the primary cause for weight gain. Health journals have attributed it to lifestyle habits like lack of recreational activity, no access to healthy food, genes, health conditions like an under-active thyroid, age, pregnancy, lack of sleep etc.

In the article, Harold Honickman, the chairman of the Honickman group of companies, one of the largest soda distributors in the mid-Atlantic region, said that soda companies are losing 1.5 to 2% business ever year. Even if that’s true, one can’t possibly say that soda companies are losing out as the most popular bottled water brands, like Aquafina and Dasani and owned by soda companies Pepsi and Coco-Cola respectively. Even flavored water and sports drinks, the sales of which are on the rise, are owned by cola companies, who then advertise it as a healthier option for soda.

Another potential problem with the article I found is that the data that is available is mostly based on a national survey. For examples, the one below. It shows how children are consuming lesser calories, thanks to changes in beverage tastes. The author uses the Philly example to launch into a soda vs. bottled water debate. But the numbers mostly represent national figures.

Less soda



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