Some time ago, serious tooth decay seemed to have been consigned to history. Hygiene awareness and good diets, backed up by the fluoridation of water supplies, had produced sound oral health. But all that has changed with the increased consumption of drinks and food with a high sugar content, and some lazy parenting. To make matters worse, the scaremongering of the anti-fluoridation brigade is again gaining traction. It is timely, therefore, for the Labour Party to be promoting an independent inquiry into fluoridation with a view to developing a national policy.
Such an investigation would not have to waste time debating the pluses and minuses of fluoridation. The advantages are undeniable. Eleven years after Auckland fluoridated its water in 1966, tooth decay in young school children had plunged 47 per cent. In a neighbouring area of non-fluoridated water, it had increased by almost 14 per cent. Such results have been replicated around the world, and have resulted in the practice gaining the unequivocal support of bodies such as the World Health Organisation, the American Dental Association and New Zealand's Ministry of Health, which says it is a "safe, effective and affordable way to prevent and reduce dental decay across the whole population".
The focus of any inquiry should be the authority best suited to make decisions on the fluoridation of water supplies. This issue has been highlighted by the New Plymouth District Council's removal of the mineral from its water. Yet again, alarmists were able to prey on the ignorance and lassitude of councillors who did not familiarise themselves with the mass of scientific literature on the subject.
The shortcomings of council decision-making on fluoridation do not end there. Councillors have sometimes shirked their responsibility by putting the issue to a referendum. A 1954 commission of inquiry into fluoridation concluded this was an unsatisfactory resort for such a technical and complex question. Subsequent events have proved this to be true. Alarmism and apathy have too often combined to carry the day - and the children whose teeth were at risk had no vote.
An alternative to council control that would, inevitably, be raised in any inquiry would be mandatory fluoridation.
Ireland introduced this in 1964 because of the severity and extent of dental decay in its population, and has judged it an outstanding success.
Labour's health spokesman, Grant Robertson, said he would not pre-judge that outcome from a local inquiry. Health Minister Tony Ryall was adamant it would not happen.
"Fluoridation is a local choice, and we have no plans to make it compulsory," he said.
Compulsion would be a step too far. But there is room to move on the "local choice" referred to by the minister. It would be far preferable if decisions on fluoridation were handed to district health boards. Then, the health and wellbeing of the local community would be the top priority, and verdicts would be based on scientific research, not the emotional and irrational views of a small minority.
More than half of New Zealanders benefit from living in fluoridated areas. But that figure should be far higher given the advantages of the practice and the problems arising from poor diets.
Other prescriptions, such as the Green Party's preference for dental hygiene (presumably using fluoride toothpastes) and reducing high-sugar food and drinks, will not suffice. For every dollar invested in community fluoridation, $80 is saved in dental bills.
If district health boards were in charge, more New Zealanders would surely benefit from this simple and safe way of improving dental health.