PHAdvocates in The Hill’s Congress Blog: Picnic in the Park with Water

PHAdvocates in The Hill’s Congress Blog: Picnic in the Park with Water
June 17, 2016 Public Health Advocates

By: Dr. Harold Goldstein, Executive Director, Public Health Advocates

International Picnic Day is June 18, and Americans get to go into the great outdoors and enjoy time with family and friends. The National Park Service (NPS) is actively promoting the event as part of its Centennial celebrations, in collaboration with its “Healthy Parks Initiative.” The Park Service uses a promotional graphic depicting people in a variety of settings, at the center of which is a picnic basket filled with fresh vegetables, fruit, bread, and bottled water. I love that. It’s refreshing for me to see water depicted in the picnic basket –– not soda, juice, or other sugary drinks, but a bottle of plain, delicious, and healthy water,

I am very excited about this healthy depiction because it reinforces in peoples’ minds the fact that water is first for thirst and the healthiest choice for hydration. But I am also a little confused as some members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Committee were at a hearing on the NPS this week, in light of the NPS policy that allows Parks to ban the sale of bottled water. The NPS must have failed to loop in its marketing department about this absurd sales ban policy, which allows soda and sugar-sweetened beverages in plastic containers to be sold in parks but not water.

When adopted in 2011, the NPS bottled water sales ban policy might have seemed environmentally helpful on the surface: fewer plastic bottles could mean less litter, while visitors get free water from newly installed “hydration stations.” What could be wrong with that?
Well, dig a little deeper. While the sale of plastic bottles filled with water are prohibited in the name of environmental stewardship, plastic bottles filled with water and sugar (sodas, sweet teas, energy drinks, and the like) are still warmly embraced by park policy.

Apparently, the Park Service sees plastic as a menace only when it carries healthy, hydrating water. Add 5, 10, or 15 teaspoons of sugar to that water, and suddenly plastic becomes a park favorite, offering visitors not only a sugar high, but a path to obesity, tooth decay, fatty liver disease, and Type 2 diabetes.

The NPS’ policy is a diabetes-inducing double standard.

That is why I am so happy to see the International Picnic Day NPS visual that prominently shows park visitors consuming a bottle of water instead.

And I am also glad to see that the House fiscal year 2017 Department of Interior Appropriations bill contains language that supports healthy choices for park visitors by ending the NPS bottled water sales ban.

This is a significant step in the right direction because we know that sales bans like this encourage people to buy the leading contributors to diabetes: sugary drinks. A study showed what happens when bottled water sales are banned, leaving sugary drinks as the only packaged beverage option. In 2013, the University of Vermont stopped selling bottled water in university stores and vending machines. The bottled water sales ban’s outcome: sugary drink sales increased by 33 percent, and the total number of plastic bottles sold, and therefore entering the waste stream, also increased.

Even more, because soda bottles typically contain twice the amount of plastic as water bottles to withstand the high pressure of carbonation, the bottled water ban led to a far greater production of plastic waste.

The truth is that the bottled water ban is a lose-lose deal: bad for consumers’ health and bad for the environment.

I applaud NPS’s efforts to encourage Americans to pack a healthy picnic and Congress for understanding what’s at stake. Even more so given that NPS is not even tracking whether the sales bans are affecting park waste and that they recently announced they are behind schedule in installing the promised water hydration stations.

There is no question. This ridiculous – and counterproductive — policy should end so Americans can have a healthy picnic in the Park we deserve, on June 18 and beyond.