City Desk

AU’s Battle of the Bottle


There was a time when Washingtonians who like their water from the tap and those who prefer it in bottles got along just fine. That time was called "last week."

Last night at American University's Wechsler Theater, the university's Center for Environmental Filmmaking hosted a screening of Tapped, a film about the environmental costs of bottled water. On Monday, the International Bottled Water Association, which is not thrilled with Tapped, e-mailed the university. Tom Lauria, the IBWA's vice president for communications, wrote that the trade group "will be there to set the record straight, both in terms of the pre-production conduct of 'Tapped' producers and the faulty information they provide to viewers." Lauria demanded a seat on the panel discussing the film cautioned that "We have many relevant comments, corrections and observations of concern to film students, and it may prove to be smoother program if AU accommodates authoritative voices who find flaws in this very problematic and false depiction of bottled water companies, as opposed to having serious issues shouted from the aisles."

Chris Palmer, the director of AU's Center for Environmental Filmmaking, invited Lauria to join the discussion, with the caveat that he wouldn't be allowed to dominate it. He read Lauria's e-mail to the room before the panelists spoke.

In an interview yesterday before the panel Lauria said he has a "little bit of a personal ax to grind" with the filmmakers; he arranged an interview for them with IBWA's president, Joseph Doss, whom he said the filmmakers "did pretty much of a hatchet job" on. In a way, he said, he was happy the showing was at American: "The film was not picked up by Sundance," he said. "It is reduced to college road shows."

"Was it rejected by Sundance?" said Stephanie Soechtig, the film's director, yesterday. "Yes. As were 3,000 other films. It was, however, selected by the International Documentary Association to be considered for an Academy Award. We didn't get nominated, but it's the thought that counts."

The IBWA "posts comments to almost every article written about us," Soechtig said. "Yet they can never specifically discredit any of our facts."

The trade group, she said, is "desperate to contain this message and discredit this message. Much like when the tobacco industry was going down and Tom Lauria swooped in to do the same thing with them."

Lauria used to be a spokesperson for the Tobacco Institute, a trade group that dissolved in 1998. Soechtig was in Los Angeles yesterday preparing for a 30-day tour to promote Tapped's March 22 DVD release, but this fact still came up last night.

“I wonder, when you worked for the Tobacco Institute, if you started your presentation with, ‘I love cigarettes,’” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a group that lobbies students, restaurateurs, and legislators to use tap water.

It was a hard left jab on a night that was quite entertaining if you always thought of drinking water as a rather gentle subject. “It takes a vivid imagination to believe this film,” Lauria told the room. “No one's against tap water. You can’t shower in bottled water." Critics of his industry, Lauria said, effectively want to take away people's right to drink water.

Hauter showed off a reusable bottle filled with tap water and threw a couple more elbows at Lauria's résumé.

“Would you knock that off?” Lauria said. “How dare you…judge” people for where they choose to get their water, he blustered.

"How dare YOU?" an audience member blustered back.

Christopher O'Brien, the university's director of sustainability, said his favorite beverage was actually beer.

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  • Dave

    Hey, before this becomes a flame war, can we all preemptively agree that any anonymous commenters who slam the film on this thread are associates of Tom Lauria or are Lauria himself? I think things will run much more smoothly if we can get that out of the way first.

  • Tom Lauria — IBWA

    Here's an interesting twist at the end of my evening at AU. I was approached by a guy who I presume was a film student. "It's just a documentary," he said. "They all do that."

  • Mike Riggs

    Beer comes in metal bottles called cans.

  • Skipper

    I drink my beer straight out of the tap and then pee on AU's campus.

  • Autumn

    I would like to the see the film and hear Tom Lauria's opposing points about the film. I work in sustainability and want to understand the facts about bottled water and its impact on the environment.

    I am also a big coffee drinker and researched the heck out of Starbucks to understand how much water was really needed to make my morning Mocha. I was SHOCKED, absolutely shocked.

    We consumers typically do not take into consideration all the costs that go into producing the products we consume.

    I still buy the occasional bottle of water - at the gym or while out and about, but at home and work, I use filters on the taps and a reusable water bottle.

    Not sure why there is so much anger!

  • Autumn

    BTW, really proud of my alma mater AU for tackling these interesting issues! Go AU!!

  • Allison Gethart

    I don't mean this to be a personal attack, but I think all of those reading this article really should take into consideration the credibility of someone who would make a living trying to save an industry selling a known cancer-causing substance.

    What does it mean that the bottled-water industry has to resort to hiring this same person? And to the same tactics?

    I'd like to see a point by point analysis of the documentary from IBWA on the points that are false.

  • Jamie

    Bottled water typically costs four times as much as gasoline. $1 for a 12oz bottle = over $12 per gallon.

    Instead of focusing on the environmental costs of bottles (which, by the way, also are true for everything else you drink out of a bottle) when you should instead be pointint out to people how stupid they are for paying four times as much as they do for gasoline for something that's basically free?

  • Jacob

    Tom Lauria is a crybaby.

  • Doc Holliday

    Tom Lauria is a rock star.

  • Tom Lauria — IBWA

    Bottled water costs, on average $1.22 per GALLON. (Beverage Marketing Corporation data) Hey Jamie -- can you tell where I can gas-up for $1.22 a gallon? I'm there! Sure, airport concessions and vending machines have high prices, but I buy my bottled water by the case at Costco for about 13 cents a bottle.

  • Nicci

    I am so proud of the work that my brother and Stephanie have done on this film and regret not being at the screening this week. I will be sure to continue with my plans to host a screening of my own for World Water Day on March 22!

  • Back2Tap

    The important price comparison to make is between bottled water and tap water - you can't run your car on bottled water! My tap water costs around 0.6 cents/gallon so it is 200 times cheaper than bottled water. Plus, there are hidden costs to drinking bottled water - air pollution, water pollution, and staggering volumes of waste hit us all in the wallet down the road.

    If you'd like to raise awareness about the bottled water issue with school aged children, check out the Back2Tap video on youtube.

  • Tom Lauria — IBWA

    Hey Back2Tap... and you can't drink gasoline, so why do anti-bottled water activists constantly make that disjointed comparison.

  • Rachel

    As an AU student, I was happy to see the debate this film brought to campus. However, I find Tom Lauria's attacks on this film irrelevant. We students will continue to push for a campus ban on bottled water. If individuals are attached to drinking bottled water, they certainly have the freedom to bring it from home. Or, for the price of about 4 bottles of Dasani, they can purchase a reusable bottle at the AU library and fill it (over and over again) at any drinking fountain--without the unnecessary costs to themselves, the environment, or the communities in which the water is bottled.

    With or without Sundance, this film will have an effect. Contrary to popular belief, we students strive to be responsible consumers, we vote, and we advocate for change.

  • Fred

    Yeah, I don't know Tom why people make the comparison to gasoline. It's a waste of time and only goads on more wasted breath and contributes nothing to the argument, only fires up wrong headed arguments about how the comparison (erroneous) strengthens the pro bottle water forces. Ugh. Let's move on.

    Our energies should be dedicated to improving municipal water authorities and the safety of tap water all round. I think in general it is pretty safe. Plastic bottles require so much problem solving, on the other hand. We are creating problems and work for ourselves when there didn't used to be any. Simplify, simplify.

  • Katie

    The correlation between gasoline and bottled water is that they both come from oil. Perhaps the economic and foreign policy implications of demanding so much oil for something we don't need (bottled water) are something to consider when you pick up a bottle with your morning newspaper.

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