Editorial: Government ought to show spine on fluoride

DHB's would have no difficulty ordering the fluoridation of municipal water supplies if the boards were able to act on the advice of medical professionals.  Photo / iStock
DHB's would have no difficulty ordering the fluoridation of municipal water supplies if the boards were able to act on the advice of medical professionals. Photo / iStock

Councils everywhere will welcome the Government's move to take the water fluoridating decision out of their hands and give it to district health boards.

The subject has not been contentious in Auckland and Wellington, which have had fluoride added to their water for as long as their citizens can remember, but it has been a political hot potato for councils in Hamilton and smaller centres. They will welcome the Government's decision, district health boards will not.

District health boards would have no difficulty ordering the fluoridation of all municipal water supplies if the boards were able to act purely on the advice of their medical professionals. With some exceptions, the profession remains strongly of the view that fluoridation reduces the incidence of tooth decay.

But district health boards are elected bodies that are supposed to reflect the views of their community. Relieving local councils of the decision will not make the fluoridation debate in those centres go away; it could widen it to the much larger jurisdiction of a health board and amplify the debate regionally and perhaps nationally.

District health boards are not electorally strong. Their elected seats are part of the triennial postal ballot for local bodies and since the health board normally comes at the end of the long ballot paper for mayor and council representatives, participation rates are low.

That may be due in large part to a lack of lively issues to help the voter distinguish between health board candidates and that may change now that fluoridation is to be on their agenda. But even so, it may be too easy for anti-fluoridationists to take over a board.

The strength of anti-fluoride campaigns in some provincial centres is extraordinary considering how many decades have passed since fluoride was introduced and the vast majority of Aucklanders would say it has done them no harm.

Those born in the baby boom, whose teeth bear the fillings of the pre-fluoridation era, have noticed that children in subsequent generations have enjoyed much better dental health. Yet if it were not for the opposition to fluoridation in provincial centres, the Government assuredly would issue a national directive.

That is what it ought to do. Health Minister Jonathan Coleman is convinced as a doctor that fluoridation is well worthwhile. He makes no secret of his wish that all district health boards will adopt it.

He hopes taking the decision away from councils will make the benefits of fluoridated water available to the 1.4 million New Zealanders without it, who include the populations of Christchurch and Nelson.

The Labour Party supports the move but its health spokeswoman, Annette King, would go further and have the Ministry of Health set a standard. Both major parties should have more courage. Governments are in the best position to withstand determined, well-meaning campaigns against a measure they believe to be in the interests of public health.

This is a decision that should rest on medical science, it is not one best decided by public vote. If there is a significant demand for non-fluoridated water, bottled brands will no doubt supply it. Everyone with a municipal supply should have this dental benefit on tap.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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