With just one small policy change, the National Park Service has undermined my most basic understanding of the role of our country's treasured parks. I was raised to believe that spending time exploring these grand monuments promotes health and well-being, and that the National Parks are a cornerstone of America's commitment to protect and care for the environment.
Perhaps unintentionally, the National Park Service has taken steps to reverse both of these traditions, breaking what's essentially the Hippocratic Oath for both the environment and the public's health: Do no harm. In 2011, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis issued a policy memo permitting -- and not-so-subtly urging -- regional directors to ban plastic bottled water sales in parks under their management. Since then, at least 18 parks, including the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore, have banned bottled water.
This policy might seem beneficial on the surface: Fewer plastic bottles could mean less litter and fewer greenhouse gases from manufacturing, while visitors get free water from newly installed "hydration stations." What could be wrong with that?
Well, dig a little deeper. While plastic bottles filled with water are excluded in the name of environmental stewardship, plastic bottles filled with sugary drinks (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 policy is a diabetes-inducing double standard.
A recent study showed what happens when bottled water is taken away, leaving sugary drinks as the only retail option. In 2013, the University of Vermont stopped selling bottled water in university stores and vending machines. The water ban's outcome: Sugary drink sales increased by 33 percent, and the total number of plastic bottles sold increased, too. Even more, because soda bottles typically contain twice the amount of plastic as water bottles (they have to be thick enough to withstand the high pressure of carbonation), the bottled water ban led to 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.
Evidently Congress gets this one. In the final funding package of the year, legislators initiated efforts to investigate the bottled water bans. But there is a problem there too. As the National Parks Service has acknowledged, parks banning the sale of bottled water are not tracking the environmental impact. Perhaps Congress should just cut to the chase and end the sales bans strictly as a matter of public health.
It comes down to this: If we want to reduce the number of plastic bottles sold in parks, then let's ban the sale of all plastic bottles, those containing only water and those filled with liquid sugar. And if we want to promote water consumption in parks, then let's continue installing hydration stations, give away reusable water bottles with park logos on them, and make water cheaper to purchase in park stores than sugary drinks.
In the end, if we want to protect both the environment and the health of park visitors -- which I absolutely do! -- let's not set things up so that people who want bottled water are encouraged to buy the leading contributors to diabetes.
From a public health perspective, a National Park Service policy giving unhealthy sugary drinks preferred treatment over water is nothing short of ludicrous.