A TELEPHONE poll of 1,000 randomly selected Island residents will be carried out next month to find out if the public want fluoride in their drinking water.
Health Minister Eddie Teare insisted that if there was no strong public mandate then his department would drop the proposal.
But the launch of the latest phase of the consultation came amid continuing accusations of bias – and an embarrassing u-turn over an information leaflet being distributed to households.
And Mr Teare admitted that even if the public voted in favour he was still likely to face a long political battle before fluoride could be introduced to the Island’s water supply.
He said: ‘I’ve no idea how it’s going to go. If the view of the public is they don’t want fluoride then that’s fine – we will walk away. I do feel this whole debate has been useful in raising the issue of the poor state of oral health in the Isle of Man.’
Public health officials are convinced fluoridation is the most cost-effective way of tackling alarmingly high rates of dental decay among the Island’s children. But the anti-fluoride lobby accuse them of ‘state-sponsored propaganda’ and insist fluoride is unsafe and far from cost-effective.
The Department of Health and Social Security has appointed independent market research company GfK/NOP to conduct the telephone poll of 1,000 randomly selected residents which will take place in early May. It will include those with ex-directory numbers.
They will ask: ‘Do you think tooth decay rates on the Isle of Man are above average UK level, below it, or about the same?’. They will continue: ‘In fact tooth decay levels on the Isle of Man are considerably higher than the average UK level.
‘In many developed counties, and in some parts of the UK, fluoride is added to the water supply to reduce levels of tooth decay. Would you favour or oppose fluoride being added to the water in the Isle of Man.’
Kevin Glynn, campaign director for anti-fluoride group Save Our Water, said: ‘How can you have a poll when only one side of the argument is given? I would say it is weighted as it doesn’t include information on dental fluorosis, a proven side-effect.’
But Mr Teare said: ‘We’re going to accused of trying to manipulate things. This thing has got very personal and I regret that. We will have no input in the poll. The questions have been drafted by GfK/NOP. It’s not weighted. We’ve not attempted to phrase the questions in such a way that there’s only one answer.’
In Tynwald last week, the minister was criticised over a new public information leaflet, due to be distributed to all Island households this week.
A line in the leaflet claimed that the Water Authority was ‘now seeking to bring in legislation on fluoridation’.
Water Authority chairman David Cannan pointed out this wasn’t correct and the leaflets have now been re-printed by the DHSS at a cost of £2,500 with the offending line removed.
Mr Teare said: ‘There was a dispute about this in Tynwald and we took it out to avoid any ambiguity. We had relied on information taken in good faith from the Water Authority but they didn’t feel comfortable with it so we removed it at their request. We reprinted it at DHSS cost because we just want to get on with it.’
But the minister admitted that even with a strong public mandate, he could still face a tough challenge to persuade the politicians to vote for the legislation needed to add fluoride to the water supply.
‘I’ve got a very difficult road to cross,’ he said.
Save Our Water say they may challenge the public information leaflet on fluoridation.
Mr Glynn said: ‘We already know information put out by the DHSS is biased. This leaflet is just propaganda and may well be in breach of advertising codes as well because they are making medicinal claims of a food product.’