Brian Rudman: Fluoridation debate drowned out by dirty tricks

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Photo / AP
Photo / AP

Talk about bad timing. In a battle for the media -- and prime ministerial -- attention, the thumbs-up for water fluoridation from John Key's chief science adviser was always going to lose out to an expose on the past antics of Mr Key's dirty tricks team.

Even without the Beagle Boys hijinks of the others, Sir Peter Gluckman's attempt to slip fluoride into the general election campaign cocktail was going to fail. Like dirty tricks, fluoridation is a topic with a similarly toxic effect, one of those irrationally divisive "values" issues that most politicians -- both local and national -- tend to run a mile from, especially when their jobs are up for tender.

This time last year, Health Minister Tony Ryall was already backing off. "The Government's role is to support local councils when they decide to use fluoride, not to make the decision for them, and we are not considering changing that."

Regardless, local councillors at last month's Local Government New Zealand annual conference voted strongly in favour of this "public health issue," being removed from local government and put into the hands of the national health authorities.

Earlier, Kapiti Coast District Council Mayor Ross Church was clear why they wanted out. He said that as long as councils are involved, decision-making falls to lay people without scientific knowledge, who are open to being influenced by strong lobby groups.

Councils, he said, "will continually come under pressure to review the policy and potentially have to spend ratepayers' money fighting judicial reviews and legal responses to any decision they make".

There's no doubt that water fluoridation is an oddity. Public health regulation, including water standards, has always been a matter for central government. Except, it seems, for water fluoridation, which, since Hastings led the way in 1954, has been left to the whims of local politicians, and the prejudices, too often, of the uninformed scaremongers.

The result, as the Gluckman-Royal Society of New Zealand report notes, is that more than half the population receives fluoridated drinking water, but several large centres do not. These include Christchurch, Whangarei, Tauranga, Wanganui, Napier, Nelson, Blenheim and Rotorua. Earlier this year, South Taranaki voted to fluoridate, but New Plymouth and Hamilton recently stopped, after campaigns by opponents.

Hamilton is due to start again next month, but court action is pending. Even in Auckland, where we like to think ourselves ruled by rational thought, there are aberrations. The bulk of reticulated water is fluoridated, but two spots are not, Huia Village in the wild west, and the old borough area of Onehunga, where the local bore water remains untreated.

The case of Onehunga is an example of what happens. The old Auckland City conducted a dodgy non-binding "referendum" in 2001, posting out an information pack with a calm supporting statement from Auckland Healthcare, and a scaremongering rave from something called the NZ Pure Water Association as "balance". Only a third of ballot papers were returned, 62 per cent of them against. The local community board bravely rejected this "referendum" and voted to fluoridate. However, the city councillors ignored the science and voted 10 to 9 against.

It's the same sort of anti-science guerrilla warfare that's been fanned over the past year or so in places such as Hamilton, New Plymouth and Rotorua. It's why local bodies are now pleading with central government to take control of this major public health issue.

The just-released report, prepared by a panel of experts on behalf of Sir Peter and the Royal Society, was triggered by Auckland Council chief planning officer Roger Blakeley, who in February wrote to Sir Peter, the Royal Society and Ministry of Health, asking for a review of the scientific evidence for and against fluoridation of public water supplies.

In their foreword, Sir Peter and Sir David Skegg, president of the Royal Society, note that the conclusions "are very clear ... there is compelling evidence that fluoridation of water at the established and recommended levels produce broad benefits for the dental health of New Zealanders".

Noting that "dental health remains a major issue for much of the NZ population ... economically and from the equity perspective fluoridation remains the safest and most appropriate approach for promoting public health."

The full report is available online, so I won't dig into the detail but suffice to say it dismisses the various scaremongering thrown up by opponents.

A year ago, Sir Peter issued a curtain-raising homily on the issue, declaring the "science of fluoride in water" was "effectively settled". He said the issues opponents kept raising were not science but questions of societal values. Science, he said, was being used as "a proxy for values debates" by some who saw the medical-science sector as "some bizarre form of conspiracy".

He said "there is no health risk from fluoridate in the water".

Unfortunately, while Mr Key enjoys the kudos of having created a chief science adviser to grace his court, he seems determined not to listen to his advice. On this issue anyway.

- NZ Herald

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