Labour and National party leaders have both agreed fluoridation of water is needed, but Jacinda Ardern has stopped short of promising it will happen.
The consensus emerged during The Press Leaders Debate hosted by Stuff on Tuesday night, when both leaders were asked if they would progress the Fluoridation Amendment Bill, which has stalled in Parliament after first being introduced in 2016.
Dr Arun Natarajan, the clinical lead of paediatric dentistry for Canterbury District Health Board, said, in a pre-recorded question for the leaders, every year 8000 children need to have dental extractions that require general anaesthetic, at a cost of $4000 for each operation – or $32 million a year.
“This is a serious health problem … Should you lead the next government, what are you going to do about the Fluoridation Amendment Bill?”
The bill would give District Health Boards the power to require local authorities to fluoridate water, a health measure which the Ministry of Health says reduces tooth decay.
A select committee report on the bill, introduced under the prior National Government, said about 54 per cent of the country’s water was fluoridated.
Labour leader Jacinda Ardern said she supported fluoridation, and there were two choices: “You either put it in your water, or you literally paint it onto children’s teeth.”
She said her Government lacked the numbers in Parliament to progress the bill –implying NZ First, which had previously voted against the bill in 2016, would not support progressing it.
“You could’ve asked us,” National leader Judith Collins said in response to Ardern, suggesting Labour could have sought National’s support to progress the bill in the past three-years.
Ardern said it was “pleasing” to see there was common ground on the issue but stopped short on committing to passing the bill if re-elected. Collins said the common ground “has always been there”.
Stuff understands Labour did approach National about gaining the party’s support to move the bill forward late in the Parliamentary term, after NZ First appeared unwilling to progress it.
There was a willingness, but National’s caucus chair, Gerry Brownlee, refused to confirm, in writing, that the party would support Labour in moving the bill forward – ending the possible coalition.
During the debate, Collins said she would ensure the bill would pass if she were elected.
“I grew up in an area without fluoride because it was on a farm, and I look at my son who had one filling in the whole of his youth and teenage years, brought up within the city with fluoride.”
Dental care has been a key issue of the 2020 election.
Labour has promised more dental clinics and grants for low-income and high-needs communities, and National a $30m-a-year dental policy which would provide children with a dental health pack that includes a toothbrush.
The Maori Oral Health Quality Improvement Group said both policies were frustrating, and should instead be concerned with requiring DHBs to stop redirecting money that should be going to dental care for tamariki, or children, as it is their right to receive it.
“The National party’s approach to give every child a toothbrush and toothpaste and tell them to brush their teeth is ridiculous and shows their complete failure to understand the issues at play.”
“The Labour party’s promise to invest in up to 20 more mobile dental clinics merely brings current service needs in to focus, but will do little to future proof the oral healthcare for our tamariki and rangatahi.”