Health officials are gearing up for a massive new campaign to persuade Rotorua residents and decision-makers to add fluoride to local water supplies.

The Lakes District Health Board has secured $31,000 – including $25,000 from the Ministry of Health – to fund the two-year campaign which will involve blind water tasting activities at City Focus, widespread advertising, and the recruitment of sporting figures to a new group aimed at countering arguments against fluoridation.

The campaign, to be launched within weeks, is the latest effort by members of the Rotorua Dental Health Campaign Group to get fluoridation back in the public spotlight after several failed attempts to convince Rotorua District Council of its benefits.

The contentious issue has been debated by district councillors several times over the past six years after the health board decided in August 2002 to urge the council to fluoridate the city’s water to combat Rotorua’s epidemic of rotting teeth.

Health board figures show Rotorua has the worst dental hygiene in New Zealand behind Northland, which also does not fluoridate its water.

About 33 per cent of 5-year-olds in Rotorua have no teeth decay, compared with 46 per cent of children starting school in Taupo, where water is fluoridated.

Despite the evidence, district councillors have voted to stay with the status-quo.

Last year, they also rejected a submission by then board member Rob Vigor Brown to hold a referendum on the issue .

Health Rotorua PHO chairman Kevin O’Connor, whose public relations firm has been contracted to help develop the campaign, said supporters had learned from previous public campaigns that people needed time to hear all the facts.

“[With this campaign] we’ll be spending more time with people and talking to them in different ways to combat the fearmongering that goes on.”

The campaign includes plans to distribute flyers to every Rotorua household educating people about fluoridation.

A website will be set up and a speakers’ programme is planned. Groups to be targeted include churches, service clubs and school trustee boards.

Public activities will include a water-tasting survey at City Focus, with blind tastings by passers-by of water from three of the city’s water supplies plus fluoridated samples from Taupo and Gisborne.

In a draft document presented recently to health board committee members, the campaign group said the aim will be “not only to gain publicity by inviting people to identify the fluoridated water, but also counter claims that water from one of the city’s supply sources [Lynmore] is ideally pure and good-tasting and should not be ‘tampered’ with by fluoridation.”

Campaigners are also planning to form the Rotorua Oral Health Association to be the community “face” of the campaign. It’s hoped high-profile Rotorua health experts, community and sporting figures will join the group. The document states the group will be “free to directly attack anti-fluoridation misinformation as untrue and harmful.”

DHB chairman Stewart Edward said the campaign would make sure the community heard all the facts.

“Oral health is an important health issue and previous campaigns haven’t really given people the chance to hear all sides of the story.

“Councillors appear reluctant to make the decision [to fluoridate] on their own but if a referendum is held via the council then we want to make sure people will be making an informed choice.”

Anti-fluoride campaigners say they are not surprised by the health board’s latest drive. But Fluoride Free Water Group spokesman Martin Sharp said he was confident that Rotorua’s water supplies were not under threat from fluoride.

“Councillors seem pretty entrenched in their views and there’s perceptions in the community that nature knows best. We should keep things chemical-free.”