A state official managing a new survey of kids’ oral health met with the architects of Portland’s pro-fluoride campaign in January and later complained that she felt pressure from Upstream Public Health about how to present the findings.
Those details emerged from state emails referencing the 2012 Smile Survey, a now-politicized report released April 24 that revealed improvement in every major dental category compared with 2007 results. State officials released the emails to The Oregonian in response to a public records request.
The emails don’t show any effort to delay the report, but do call into question whether fluoride proponents received advance and unfair access to information contradicting the “growing dental health crisis” campaign tied to Tuesday’s election.
In contrast, Oregon Health Authority officials never met with fluoride opponents and didn’t publicly release a draft version of the report until late April after receiving an open records request from the newspaper.
Dental health statistics have been key for the pro-fluoride campaign, and any change for the worse could have bolstered their arguments. For instance, the website run by Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland highlights a 49 percent increase of untreated dental decay among children between 2002 and 2007. But new 2012 statistics show that increase has been fully wiped away and the percentage of kids with untreated decay is now below 2002 levels.
According to the emails, Shanie Mason, the state’s oral health program manager, and Mel Kohn, the state health officer, met with the co-directors of Upstream Public Health, Mel Rader and Raquel Luz Bournhonesque, on Jan. 31 before results were available.
Once initial numbers came back, Mason emailed Kohn on Feb. 4 to ask him, “Shall I contact Raquel and Mel now or wait until we’ve done an initial draft?”
State officials initially told Upstream that the report would be available in February. When it wasn’t, the deputy state epidemiologist, Bruce Gutelius, wrote an email to Kohn on March 19 to let him know that Mason “spoke with Mel and Raquel last week and that she thought the conversation was productive.”
“Shanie went over an outline of the survey results with them, although no specific data were discussed, and told them she expected a draft report to be completed by the end of this month,” Gutelius told Kohn, also copying Mason on the email. “Shanie also made sure they knew she would remain in touch as the draft report is developed.”
But Jonathan Modie, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority, contends that never happened.
“Shanie did not go over an outline of the survey results with Upstream. Again, no specific data were discussed,” he wrote in response to questions from The Oregonian. “Bruce, who was not involved in the actual conversation between Shanie and Upstream, simply misdescribed the conversation in what he relayed to Dr. Kohn.”
By April 2, with pressure building to release the report, Mason vented frustrations in an email to a former student intern, who also was a screener for the survey.
“I’m also getting a ton of pressure from advocates like Upstream Public Health that have very specific ideas about how we should present our information,” Mason wrote. “Unfortunately for them I’m committed to maintaining the integrity of our work and we’ll be presenting our data in the way that we see most appropriate.”
Modie characterized Mason’s email as an expression of frustration and “a normal reaction for people who have too much to do and not enough time to do it.”
Rader said Upstream did not pressure Mason and did not receive the draft survey until after it was released to reporters. “I have no idea what she’s talking about,” he said.
Last year, Upstream quietly worked within Portland City Hall to secure support to fluoridate Portland drinking water. That led to the City Council’s approval in September, although opponents collected enough signatures to force Tuesday’s vote.
Upstream remains a champion for the fluoride cause, contributing nearly $59,000 to Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland through in-kind contributions for advertising and other efforts.
Kimberly Kaminski, chairwoman for the opposition group Clean Water Portland, said details from the emails are “highly disturbing” and called for an investigation by the Department of Justice.
“There’s clearly some funny business going on,” she said. “They’re meeting behind the scenes and being pressured by Upstream … when there’s an active political campaign going on.”
State officials only met with Upstream, Modie explained, because no one else asked.
“We always aim to provide access equally to anyone who requests it,” he wrote. “It’s part of our being responsive, accountable and transparent.”