Herald on Sunday editorial: This health debate has had its day

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It is astonishing that half a century after the benefits for children were recognised, only 56% of NZ's water supply is fluoridated today. Photo / Thinkstock
It is astonishing that half a century after the benefits for children were recognised, only 56% of NZ's water supply is fluoridated today. Photo / Thinkstock

Citizens of Auckland and Wellington will be surprised to learn that water fluoridation is still an issue for the rest of the country.

In Hamilton, where a referendum found a 70 per cent majority for fluoridation seven years ago, the council is facing pressure to remove it. Whakatane and Hastings are having referendums with their elections this year. Thames is considering separate water tanks for those who object to fluoridation.

Meanwhile, South Taranaki District Council faces legal action against fluoridation in Waverley and Patea that, if successful, could have implications for the nation's dental health and common sense.

It is astonishing that half a century after the benefits for children were recognised, only 56 per cent of New Zealand's water supply is fluoridated today. Just 23 of our 67 city and district councils do so.

The hold-outs, which include Whangarei, Tauranga, Rotorua, Napier, New Plymouth, Nelson and Christchurch, are defying the advice of their health boards and the Ministry of Health.

Some have reverted recently. New Plymouth was fluoridated until October 2011, Central Hawkes Bay District Council stopped last September. Elected councils are washing their hands of proper medical advice and letting the decision be made by a poll.

Far North District Council decided to withhold fluoridated water from the children of Kaitaia and Kaikohe after a survey of just 300 people in each town. It's bad enough councillors who aren't experts on health think they can decide, but to include only a section of a community is outrageous.

Some people feel strongly that fluoride is unsafe and even immoral because it is forced upon them. They call it "compulsory mass medication", raising a spectre of Nazis in white coats administering poison to a captive population.

Others are content to trust the judgment of health authorities. The passive are much less likely to return a vote in a referendum, though encouragingly Hamilton's 2006 result shows people are smart enough to know the benefits when given the evidence.

Referendums are fine for decisions on subjects of general interest where every citizen's opinion is as valid as the next person's. Referendums are not fine when the subject requires an educated judgment and the issue excites only one side of public opinion.

Yes, there are doctors and dentists who doubt the efficacy of fluoridation and have declared themselves against it. But those who claim the water supply's tiny permitted dosage has made no significant difference to tooth decay cannot in their next breath claim it has damaging side effects. The risks they cite to bone and joints arise from much higher daily intakes than anyone could drink.

Fluoride in water might not add much to the dental health of those who take good care of their teeth but it does no harm to have it in the water for the sake of those, especially children, whose care is deficient. Experience suggests it is effective. Older generations can remember when children's teeth were full of fillings and most adults had dentures. Something has made a vast improvement, something in the water.

It is well past time for legislation to relieve councils of this tiresome issue and make fluoridation mandatory.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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