Why Bottled Water Companies Target Blacks and Latinos

| Mon Aug. 15, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

Over at Forbes, Nadia Arumugam writes that bottled water companies have been actively marketing their products to minority groups, with ads targeting black and Latino mothers, and endorsements from celebrities like TLC's Chilli and Hispanic TV host Cristina Saralegui

Below, Chilli talks about making the Dasani ad with her son:

Judging from a new study published by the American Medical Association, the PR push is working. Researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin found that Latinos and African Americans are more likely to give bottled water to their children and spend up to twice as much of their household income on bottled water as do whites. After surveying some 640 people they found that Latinos and African Americans are more likely to consume bottled water largely because they view tap water as a health risk. From the study:

Beliefs about tap water safety and cleanliness, preference for bottled water taste, and perceived bottled water convenience had the strongest association with the use of bottled water. Obtaining information about tap water from environmental organizations was also associated with greater odds of bottled water use.

Latinos and African Americans, the survey found, spent up to 12 and 16.7 percent of their household income on bottled water, respectively, while white Americans spent up to 6 percent. The racial/ethnic gap in bottled water consumption could be explained by "actual differences in current tap water quality," the study notes, and survey responses supported this notion, finding that "prior experience is related to water choices."

America's water system faces an annual funding shortfall of at least $11 billion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In their 2009 Report Card for American Infrastructure, the group gave a disappointing D- for drinking water, arguing that the country's ability to prevent failure in drinking-water systems and maintain them are inadequate. Disruptions in water delivery services "can hinder disaster response and recover efforts, expose the public to water-borne contaminants, and cause damage to roadways, structures, and other infrastructure, endangering lives and resulting in billions of dollars in losses."

Such weaknesses might be more acute in rural and low-income communities. According to the US Census Bureau (PDF), Latino and African Americans together make up almost half of the US population living under the poverty line. The Natural Resources Defense Council reported (PDF) in 2004 that 3 in 5 African and Latino Americans live in communities that are also home to Superfund sites, which are prone to releasing toxins into nearby groundwater supplies. In a March 2011 case study of California's San Joaquin Valley, the environmental group Pacific Institute warned that nearby communities were probably drinking water contaminated with nitrates above EPA-sanctioned levels and likely coming from agricultural fertilizers. Those most at risk, the report found, were disproportionately low-income households and Spanish-speaking residents.

Back in 2007, three scholars from the University of Illinois argued in the journal Geoforum that such a disparity is often ignored because people tend to assume that the United States provides universal access to safe drinking water. Not true, they say:

Contrary to reports of 100 percent access to safe water and sanitation in international surveys, the United States has a complex landscape of low-income water systems…The vast majority of urban and rural poor in the US do have access to water and sanitation. However, even cursory observation of poor areas in the US indicates residents who lack access to basic indoor water and plumbing. They include some among the urban homeless, migrant workers, residents of colonias along the US-Mexico border, and remote areas of Native American reservations…

You can't blame people for choosing bottled water when the tap water sucks. But unfortunately, bottled water comes with pretty serious environmental consequences. There's the obvious waste problem, to start. Somewhere around 2.4 million tons of polyethylene terephthalate plastic (commonly used for bottling drinks) is discarded in the US each year, and up to 41 percent of that comes from water bottles. Nor are bottled water companies the kind you'd want in your neighborhood. Mother Jones has reported extensively on Fiji Water's practices in particular, whether it's turning its cheek away from the island's oppression under the military junta, disregarding the local populace's lack of access to water, or burning its trash in nearby towns.

The underlying and perhaps most sobering threat here is that unsafe tap water, whether perceived or real, could be contributing to the financial burden on low-income communities. And if safe tap water were more widely available, maybe people wouldn't be so vulnerable to bottled water companies' marketing ploys, regardless of ethnicity.

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