A decision in the 1950s making local authorities responsible for fluoridating water supplies won’t be changing overnight, according to public health officials.
Dr Robin Whyman, the Ministry of Health’s chief oral health adviser says it could take a Parliamentary bill to change existing legislation and more debate was needed before that would happen.
Debate over who should be responsible for water fluoridation has flared after the Rotorua District Council voted not to fluoridate the city’s water supplies during recent annual plan deliberations.
Last week councillors also voted 7-6 against holding a referendum on the issue in tandem with this year’s local body elections.
Lakes District Health Board chairman Stewart Edward has criticised the decisions, saying more than half the councillors had their “heads in the sand on what is a significant health issue”.
The health board has lobbied the district council to fluoridate for the past five years, citing statistics which rank Rotorua among the worst three districts in the country for tooth decay, the others being Northland and the remainder of the Bay of Plenty.
“The often trotted out suggestion people should make their own arrangements in relation to fluoridation and oral health is deeply frustrating when the council has a stated commitment to achieving a healthy community.”
Rotorua District Council chief executive Peter Guerin has defended the councillors’ decisions, arguing fluoridation was a health issue that central government needed to take responsibility for. He compared fluoridation to legislation forced on local authorities by the Ministry of Health to ensure communities were provided with safe drinking water.
“Government is legislating for everything else these days. They have the mandate to be able to take a leadership role on fluoridation but why they don’t I have no idea.”
While the health ministry advocates fluoridation as a proven method to prevent tooth decay, Dr Whyman said it did not have the power under present legislation to force councils to add fluoride to their water.
That legislation was drawn up in the 1950s when local authorities first started fluoridating in New Zealand.
“At the moment we’re working with the policy we have of allowing local councils to decide. But if the councils are raising it as an issue then it may need further debate.”