There was no more apt commentary on the result of Hamilton's referendum on the fluoridation of its drinking water than that delivered by Dr Jonathan Broadbent, a public health dentistry specialist at Otago University. "Well done to the people of Hamilton, who have shown more common sense than many of their own city councillors," he said. The 70 per cent who had voted to return fluoride to the city's water supply had, he added, struck a blow for science, public health and less dental decay.
In addition to the Hamiltonians, Dr Broadbent might also have congratulated the people of Whakatane and Hastings, who voted by 60 per cent and 63 per cent respectively to retain fluoride in their water supplies. In sum, the outcome of these polls, held in conjunction with the local body elections, represented an overdue triumph for reason and scientific research over rowdiness and irrationality.
The new-look Hamilton City Council, having witnessed an eight-member tribunal set up by its predecessor foolishly voting this year to remove fluoride, must now reinstate it. Fortunately, the penny seems to have dropped. Re-elected Mayor Julie Hardaker, who had previously expressed satisfaction with the process that led to fluoride's removal and opposed the referendum, has indicated the council will respect the public voice and bring back fluoridation as soon as possible. It is under no obligation to do so because the poll was non-binding. But the conclusiveness of the vote, which echoed that of a referendum held seven years ago, leaves it, effectively, with no option.
On no account should the council be swayed by the anti-fluoridation lobbyists. They have condemned the result as the product of a small fraction of eligible voters and money spent by the Waikato District Health Board on a pro-fluoride campaign.
Yet their own success in getting fluoride removed from Hamilton's water was all about a noisy minority prevailing over a woeful group of councillors who failed to pay heed to overwhelming scientific opinion.
It is true that the outcome of referendums can sometimes be, quite legitimately, dismissed. Too often they are the product of a combination of alarmism and apathy. Not, however, on this occasion. This was not a poll that was hijacked by a small minority, as has sometimes been the case with some referendums on fluoridation, including one in Onehunga a decade or so ago.
The campaign by the district health board ensured both sides of the argument were heard by Hamiltonians. That, in turn, guaranteed both sides of public opinion were engaged. The board's campaign ensured, also, that people had the evidence before them and could exercise an educated judgment. And whatever the shortcomings of many referendums, this one actually met one of the prime reasons for them: a glaring case of official negligence that required rectification.
The publicity generated in Hamilton undoubtedly had an impact on the polls in Whakatane and Hastings. It should also occasion an immediate rethink by some of the councils that do not have fluoridation or have abandoned it.
New Plymouth, for example, was fluoridated until October 2011, while the Central Hawkes Bay District Council stopped a year ago. In both cases, as in Hamilton, councillors ignored the advice of their district health boards and the Ministry of Health, as well as organisations such as the World Health Organisation. In so doing, they failed dismally to stand up for the health of their residents.
There is no reason to think the people of these districts, and other unfluoridated cities such as Tauranga, Whangarei, Napier and Christchurch, would vote any differently from those whose verdict was delivered last weekend. They should be given the chance to have their say.
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