First Lady Michelle Obama is launching Drink Up, a new public health initiative to encourage people to drink more water. The kick off will start today in Watertown, Wisconsin, and will continue as a veritable publicity extravaganza with Mrs. Obama’s media appearances on Today, Good Morning America, Live with Kelly and Michael, The View, Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jimmy Fallon, plus celebrity endorsements galore.
Media response to this announcement so far has been mostly positive; only James Hamblin at The Atlantic sounded the alarm over the White House Senior Policy Advisor Sam Kass (who began his White House career as an assistant chef) and his inability to say anything intelligent about the initiative. Hamblin quotes Kass from a press briefing yesterday, repeating anodyne PR phrases like: “Water is our original energy drink. It’s a really exciting, fun, and positive campaign that will inspire people to drink more water.” And when Hamblin asked what exactly are the health benefits of drinking more water, Kass answered like a confused robot: “I think the science and evidence about hydration abounds. Starting with headaches, it leads to many more conditions. But this isn’t a public health campaign. We think that being positive is most important, not getting into all the details about what a glass of water can do for you, is the message.” It sounds like some PR team drilled it into his head that as long as he kept repeating words like “positive” and “fun,” nothing bad will happen.
Aside from making fun of the ineloquent Kass, Hamblin’s beef with the campaign seems to be the lack of scientific proof that we should be drinking more water. But that misses the point, since studies have shown that dehydration causes fatigue, overeating, slower metabolism, cognitive malfunction, and even depression. What really should be raising eyebrows more than Mrs. Obama’s unlikely choice in her lieutenants, is the fact that Drink Up campaign is sponsored by bottled beverage corporations–which has been noted, but strangely not criticized. Here are some sponsors of Drink Up: American Beverage Association; International Bottled Water Association; private bottled water brands like Aquafina, Arrowhead, Dasani, Evian, Ice Mountain, Nestle Purelife, Poland Springs; and Brita, the water filter company. With economic, ethical, and environmental concerns mounting over bottled water consumption, I’m astounded that Michelle Obama would coalesce with beverage giants that exploit public resources for corporate profit, increase out BPA consumption, and add millions of empty bottles to landfills every single day. And for what purpose? Something as simple as getting people to drink more water. Would the message have been any less “positive” and “fun” had she decided to forego millions of dollars of endorsement and a cute logo to plaster on top of countless bottles of water?
This is a seriously disappointing way of promoting a very underwhelming cause from someone of Michelle Obama’s stature. As the First Lady of the United States, she has the influence and power to make some very significant changes. If her water initiative can’t be the stuff of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (providing sanitation solutions in developing countries, building sewage systems, public bathrooms, and clean water sources), at least she could tackle some serious issues at home like fluoridation of public water, which is still happening in the US despite the fact that international bodies like UNICEF are removing fluoride from water supplies. (Excess fluoride consumption causes infertility, hypothyroidism, decreased IQ, among other problems, and is not necessary for dental health. In fact, fluoride used to be disposed of as industrial waste until the 1950’s).
Mrs. Obama is a hugely appealing figure, influential and likable beyond the reach of most First Ladies. But to really make a difference, she has to lose the desire to simply be admired as an anti-obesity advocate, a cool mom and a fashion plate. As First Lady, she should use her power to support more than just anodyne causes like American fashion designers (because they’re…an endangered species? Not really) and drinking lots of water, and take a stance in controversial causes that actually matter, like Hilary “I-don’t-care-what-you-think-I’m-freakin’-Hilary” Clinton (her new chosen cause? elephant poaching). When Mrs. Obama chooses to actually take a meaningful stance, I’ll be right behind her.
Note: An earlier version of this article listed Global Tap as a private bottled water company. Global Tap LLC provides access to tap water in public places and does not sell bottled water.