Water vs. Soda: An Ethical Conundrum

First, some background. As you may or may not know, I have a policy of usually getting water with my meals when going out to a restaurant. And unless I am in a municipality that has poor drinking water quality, I am quite satisfied by getting free tap water. The reasons for this are twofold. 1) It's cheaper and 2) I don't need the extra gas, sugar, or calories from soda or any other flavored beverages and I find that water is almost always the best accouterment to my meals. Occasionally, for some reason, I'm in the mood for a soda or other beverage with a meal, but this is probably only 5% of the time, I'd estimate.

Most restaurants are pretty good about offering free water, many times in a self-service form. Once, a place charged me for it a long time ago, but for the most part, places are very good about offering it. They also offer bottled water, which they would prefer me to chose, but they accommodate the thrifty people like myself. I have always been of the mind that the money saved from getting water vs. soda made the difference in making a meal a good value or not. The difference in the $1 cost on a $5 meal is quite a large percentage and also a good amount of money when you think about the yearly cost.

The profit margins on soda, whether by fountain or can, are huge in the restaurant business. It probably costs them a couple a cents on the margin for a $1 fountain soda they sell to the public. This high profit margin allows them to offer cheaper prices on their food items as a way to entice people to eat at their establishment. This is especially true of fast food restaurants with a large assortment of "99 cent" items. For this reason, I have always though of the soda-buyers to be essentially subsidizing people like me. They buy the sodas and enable the food prices to be lower, which helps me since I only purchase the food and do not spend any money on the sodas.

Similarly, the same principal can be applied to other industries. The movie theaters make a ton of money from popcorn and snacks and if they did not, would have to charge much higher ticket prices. So, those people buying the $7 bucket of popcorn, which costs about 25 cents to produce are helping the thrifty movie-goers (like me) who never buys any concessions. Another example is Las Vegas. Someone who visits or lives in this fine city, but does not care to gamble, can get a ton of great deals on food, shows, lodging, that are subsidized by the people who gamble and lose money and allow the casinos to offer great buffets for lower cost than they would be otherwise. In this case, I am one of the providers of the subsidy, as I participate in the gambling when I am there.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. The reason for me bringing this issue up is that I have lately been questioning whether I am being ethical in my using free water at a restaurant. Let's assume here that the establishment also offers bottled water for $1. The question is: Am I wrong to be subverting the economics of the restaurant business by getting free water and letting my fellow patrons spend the money on drinks because they are ashamed to ask for the free water? Part of the reason or my guilt is the fact that though tap water is virtually free to the business, they still must provide cups and maintain pitchers or expend some labor in satisfying the free water needs of people like me. They are in the right to insist on charging something for this, but hardly any do because it is a common belief that tap water should not be charged for and doing so would likely alienate the public too much. I know it did this to me the one time a restaurateur charged me for water, though I did not contemplate the justness of his actions as I do now, and would be less upset if the same thing were to happen today.

Of course, further reasoning these things, I conclude that the soda buyers all COULD get free water if they wished to. Perhaps they are too ashamed to ask for it. Perhaps the have been conditioned by the soda and fast food industry to having to have soda with every meal. Or maybe they just enjoy the beverage and need something with more razzle-dazzle to consume with their meal. Whether for being embarrassed or simply wanting it, most people choose to spend their extra $1 or so on the soda rather than save and get water. Now, if it came to be the nearly everyone started asking for free water, maybe the restaurant industry would have to rethink the economics of banking on the high beverage margins and raise prices on their main food offerings. Then the soda people would get hit twice, but it would be their choice again.

A similar, but opposite fact is true with another consumer issue, the use of credit cards. Credit card users cause prices to be higher at stores since the stores have to pay the credit card companies 2% or so fee on the value of the transaction. However, cash buyers do not get a cash discount (at most places) for using cash, even though they are saving the store money buy doing so. So, in essence, the cash buyers are partly subsidizing the credit buyers because they are paying slightly higher prices to make up for the credit card fees.. Now, it may also be that a store doesn't have to raise prices the exact amount of the credit card fees because of the fact that credit cards help spur higher sales by allowing consumers to spend more. But there is no doubt, that these fees are at least partially passed on to the consumer, be it cash or credit.

So what is my conclusion now? I think that getting free water is ethically acceptable even though the soda buyers are subsidizing cheaper food prices for the water people. Soda is not necessary for every meal. The soda buyers make a decision that they want it with their meal and don't care about spending the extra dollar to do so or that the cost of the product is pennies. They just know that a $1 isn't a big deal and they want soda. So it's fine for them, and it's fine for the free water people who don't care to spend that extra dollar and don't want soda or other beverages anyway and don't need the elitist value of bottled water either. As for the cost in providing the free water to the restaurant (cups, labor), these are like any other established cost that a restaurant is assumed to provide for it's customers, like providing a clean bathroom, and packets of sugar on the table.

So to the people that feel ashamed to be free water consumers, I say, "Have no shame." Yes, you are being subsidized by the soda buyers, but it is a choice they make and they are free to come to our side anytime they choose. And for the restaurateurs that grumble about the free water users, I scoff. Add the cost to your food, like any other cost of doing business. If your soda buying customers don't like it, they can switch to water. Plus, many water drinkers are such that they might not go out to eat as that extra dollar for the soda would be just enough to spur them to make a tuna sandwich for lunch every day.

I don't maintain that tap water must always be free to get in a restaurant. Indeed, it may become the trend someday to charge for it. But until that day comes, I will ask for my free tap water with pride, knowing it is the most healthy and cost effective beverage of choice to accompany my meal.

recent WSJ article on waiters scamming customers to get expensive water. Shameful.

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