Richard Hall

10 Mar 2008 (Updated 10 Mar 2009)


The UK bottled water 'silly season'

Seasonality affects the sales of most beverages, but my latest concern over climate change has been an exceptionally early start to the silly season.

This normally comes in the late summer, when so many people are away that journalists make news out of almost anything.

Last week, no less than the cabinet secretary wrote to all UK government departments asking them to adopt tap-water-only policies, explaining "I have made this issue one of my key priorities". This was front page news for the Evening Standard, leaving no room for health or education, defence or crime – not even football.

This is because Whitehall reportedly uses 250,000 bottles of water a year, which amounts to 0.02% of a market that's responsible for, at most, 0.1% of UK carbon emissions. Hardly a drop in the ocean.

In mid February, the environment minister described bottled water as daft because tap water is so good. Yet Private Eye magazine found that his own department had installed special water filters at a cost of over £2,000 a tap.

I'm surprised the minister didn't add "let them eat cake".

This week, beverages will have been higher than usual on the chancellor's agenda, when considering his first budget statement. He has been urged to raise taxes on alcopops and lower taxes on fruit juice. These are not silly ideas, because the government can easily do more to encourage better social behaviour and better health.

Important elements of public health policy are for us to eat five a day of fruit or vegetables and to drink eight glasses a day of water. There's no VAT on fruit or vegetables or tap water, yet we have to pay 17.5% tax for fruit juice and bottled water.

The silliest thing would be not to promote better hydration and health by ending these anomalies, because the change would cost so little and save so much.