More people will suffer from tooth decay because of a lack of progress passing a bill around fluoride decision-making, a former politician says.
The New Zealand Dental Association has also expressed concern at the lengthy process to pass the bill, which will empower district health boards (DHBs) to decide if fluoride should be added to drinking water. Territorial authorities currently make that decision.
The National-led Government introduced the bill in 2016. It passed its first reading that year with broad support, and the health committee produced its final report on the proposed law change in May, 2017.
Asked why the bill had not progressed, Health Minister David Clark said the Government had a busy legislative agenda. “It’s my intention to advance this legislation as the schedule of the House allows.”
Former associate health minister Peter Dunne, who introduced the changes, said he was disappointed at the lack of progress. “I would have thought it would have been a relatively easy thing to progress fairly quickly.
“The longer it takes to bring this into effect the more people who will suffer bad oral health consequences through not having access to fluoridated water.”
New Zealand First, part of the coalition Government, was the only party that opposed the bill at its first reading in 2016.
While it was just a suspicion, Dunne said if the party was holding up the process it was appalling. “Everyone else is in favour. There’s a clear majority and the health benefits are obvious, so why it hasn’t proceeded is a bit beyond me.”
A New Zealand First spokesperson said the party retained its position that local governments should make the decision by referendum.
About 54 per cent of the New Zealand population receives fluoridated water, according to the 2017 health committee report. The Ministry of Health says water fluoridation is a proven public health measure to reduce tooth decay. Some groups, such as Fluoride Free NZ, are vehemently opposed.
Dental association spokesman Dr Rob Beaglehole said water fluoridation had a massive impact on reducing tooth decay.
“It’s horrendous, in terms of the unnecessary pain and suffering which is caused on a day-to-day basis because people, particularly children living in poverty, don’t have access to fluoridated water.
“The number one reason children are admitted to hospitals in New Zealand is to have a general anesthetic to have their teeth taken out.”
Beaglehole said the association was concerned at the length of time the bill was taking to pass, but was optimistic it would with broad support. While it did not mandate fluoridation, he said transferring the decision to DHBs would help extend protection to more communities.
“We want all the parties in the house to support this, to vote for this. Because it’s not a National thing. It’s not a Labour thing. What it is is a pain and suffering issue.”
National health spokesman Michael Woodhouse said he strongly supported DHBs having the ability to decide on water fluoridation.
It was customary for National to consider its position on bills when they came up, Woodhouse said. However, Clark could take a “very strong signal” about how National would vote on the bill at its second reading given its previous support.
“It’s time that bill progressed. I don’t accept that the Government is that busy that it can’t do it. The order paper is the thinnest it’s ever been,” Woodhouse said.
Should Christchurch’s water be fluoridated?
Wellington and Auckland both have it, but drinking water in Christchurch, New Zealand’s second biggest city, isn’t fluoridated.
Canterbury medical officer of health Dr Alistair Humphrey said the benefits of fluoridating drinking water were clear.
“If your grandmother can’t get a hip operation it’s in large part because of theatres being tied up by preventable problems. One of the most preventable and significant problems is dental caries in children.
“If you look at the science, science would suggest fluoridation is of great benefit, particularly for the poorest people in our society.”
Instead of leaving the decision on whether to add fluoride to drinking water to DHBs or territorial authorities, Humphrey said there needed to be national leadership.
“If you leave it up to locally elected people, they are concerned about the views of their constituents and the effect of anti-fluoride people on their election prospects.”
Stuff canvassed Canterbury District Health Board candidates to ask if they supported adding fluoride to drinking water in Canterbury.
Of the 15 who responded, five candidates were in favour, seven were against, and three were undecided or held nuanced views that could not easily be categorised.