Billboards plastered with the faces of grinning kids and the message “Reason #1 to vote for fluoride” have been popping up along the Wasatch Front in the past two weeks.
Utahns for Better Dental Health will soon have about 50 of the billboards in place throughout Salt Lake County.
The advertising blitz is one signal that supporters of fluoridating drinking water have a sizeable campaign fund â€” as well as healthy public support with about five weeks left before residents in Salt Lake, Davis and parts of Cache County vote on whether to add fluoride to public water supplies.
The majority of Salt Lake and Davis county residents say they will vote in favor of adding fluoride to the public water supplies, according to a recent Deseret News/KSL poll [see poll results below]. Pollster Dan Jones and Associates found that in the two counties, 70 percent are in favor of fluoridation and 28 percent opposed, with a 5.5 percent margin of error.
A breakdown of the poll’s demographics shows broadbased support for fluoridation. The support is nearly unanimous among those least likely to afford dental insurance. Of those earning less than $15,000 a year, 92 percent are definitely or probably in favor of water fluoridation.
Support is fairly uniform among varying age groups, with those 65 and older showing slightly less support than the average 60 percent in favor. Political party affiliation is also not a significant factor, with 70 percent of Republicans, 81 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independent voters supporting the measure.
Davis County Board of Health chairwoman Beth Beck says that while the poll numbers are encouraging she has been increasingly anxious about the upcoming Nov. 7 election.
“I can’t sleep and I am nervous. It’s so important to me, and I want it to end right,” she says.
And despite the poll’s numbers, those fighting against fluoridation remain optimistic.
Rosemary Minervini, president of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, says she has received an influx of telephone calls in the past few weeks from people who want to become involved in the fight.
“I think because it’s getting closer to the election . . . there is more support. More people are speaking out. I’m still very positive,” she says.
But she and other opponents are also increasingly frustrated that no debates have taken place. In September, 23 proponents and health officials were invited by Utah Citizens Committee Against Fluoridation to debate Dr. Paul Connett, who was flown in from New York for the event. None of the proponents accepted the invitation, and Connett debated empty chairs.
The proponents’ strategy has been to avoid any public face-off with the opposition. Beck and her colleagues dismiss them as scaremongers.
“They have no rules,” and it is impossible to know what to expect in a debate, Beck says.
Dr. Tony Tidwell of the Salt Lake Valley Board of Health has added that opponents bring up health threats ranging from hip fractures and fluorosis to lead poisoning to put unnecessary doubt in people’s minds.
But Minervini, a former dental hygienist, counters that supporters’ attitude of ignoring the opposition will backfire.
“We’re not trying to place doubt, we’re trying to place information,” she says. “We think it’s an absolute shame. It’s as though they’re yielding to the opponents.”
Instead of debating in Davis County, proponents are speaking to community groups and putting together newspaper and radio ads. And in Salt Lake County, a large publicity campaign focusing on children’s health is under way.
Scores of dentists, pediatricians and public health officials are hoping to hook voters with the idea that voting in favor of water fluoridation will help Utah’s children avoid tooth decay.
“It’s children that can benefit the most. It makes them stronger for a lifetime,” says state Sen. Paula Julander, a chairwoman with Utahns for Better Dental Health.
Opponents say the campaign may look good, but it is misleading.
“They make people think, ‘Isn’t that nice. Let’s keep their teeth nice and white.’ . . . (But) with fluorosis, they won’t be white for much longer.” Minervini says. “What they should do is have a photo of an entire city on there, because that’s who they’re treating.”
Opponents like Minervini say overdosing on fluoride can sometimes lead to fluorosis, a brown staining of the teeth. The concern is dismissed by health board members, who say that because the substance is added at 1 part per million the risk of fluorosis is extremely low.
Besides, it is a natural element and a common practice, Dr. Mark Valentine of Utahns for Better Dental Health said at a news conference last month.
“It’s like adding iodine to salt or folate to cereal. It’s a preventative measure,” he says.
But consumers can buy iodine-free salt if they want to, opponents have challenged.
And that goes along with the opposition’s other argument against fluoridating public water supplies: it infringes on the rights of citizens to avoid ingesting a substance they don’t want.
Those type of arguments have worked for the nearly 40 years that opponents of fluoridated drinking water have either kept the issue off election ballots or defeated it.
Only Brigham City, Helper and Hill Air Force Base â€” less than 3 percent of the state â€” have fluoridated public drinking water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 62.2 percent of the U.S. population drinks public water supplies with fluoridated water, or a total of 144.6 million Americans.
While Minervini won’t concede defeat, she acknowledges that her group’s individual donations to pay for radio spots, yard signs and pamphlets are no match for the pro-fluoride movement’s war chest.
“(Proponents) do have a strong arm, and they do have deep pockets . . . Can you imagine how much Primary Children’s has donated?” she says. “We are getting donations from mom-and-pop people who don’t want fluoride in their water.”
Complete campaign finance figures are hard to come by as Davis County doesn’t require such reporting, and Salt Lake County won’t report figures until Oct. 31.
But the Salt Lake chapter of Utahns for Better Dental Health has raised more than $25,000, Julander says. The donations are coming from individuals as well as Primary Children’s Medical Center, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and others. Reagan Outdoor Advertising and Penna Powers Cutting Haynes Advertising have made donations to create the billboards.
Beck says that in Davis County the biggest supporters are dentists and doctors, though a number of residents have donated as well, including herself.
“I’ve given plenty.”
Deseret News/KSL-TV Poll
If the election were held today, would you vote for or against fluoridating the public water supplies in your county?
Definitely for = 57%
Probably for = 13%
Probably against = 9%
Definitely against = 19%
Don’t know = 3%