OPINION: The unsolvable argument over the benefits or otherwise of fluoride in our drinking water has taken on a sinister element with a government determined to have it introduced but lacking the courage to make the final decision.

Rather than risk the wrath of the community less than a year out from a general election, the Government initially gave the task to district councillors, who didn’t really want it even though they would have been obliged to consult their communities and be guided by the majority of ratepayers.

In a reprehensible move, the Government has now decided to give authority to order fluoride to be added to drinking water to district heath boards. Most of these bodies already support the introduction of fluoride and any public consultation will likely be little more than a sham. These boards are only partly elected: the majority of members, including the chair, are government appointees.

Supporters of fluoride claim the addition of the chemical to everyone’s water will help prevent tooth decay in young people and so save significant costs in the future. There is some truth to that argument, as New Zealanders of today have one of the worst records of dental health in the world. Sugar in the national fast food diet and the loss of the school dental nurse service no doubt contribute to the current problem.

Dental and health experts from around the world have provided compelling evidence to support the argument for fluoride in everyone’s water.

Opposition to fluoride is, however, more than an objection to mass medication on principle. Some opponents claim the chemical poses significant health risks and, like the dental lobby, have presented impressive evidence to support their contention. They also say, with some justification, that fluoride, for those who want it, is readily available in toothpaste and tablet form at little cost without the need or significant cost in infrastructure to impose it on everyone else.

This is not the first time mass medication has been introduced in New Zealand. Iodine deficiency, as a cause for goitre, was discovered in the early 1900s and to address the problem, table salt was iodised at up to 80mg of iodine per kilogram of salt in 1938.

This was accompanied by an extensive public education programme and there was always un-iodised salt as an alternative for those who objected.

With fluoride, there appear to be no practical alternatives for those who object. There is the possibility of installing rainwater tanks or buying bottled water for drinking, but both come with a huge cost as well as major practical and resource consent impediments.

The opposing arguments for and against fluoride have become somewhat pointless, as both sides are so firmly entrenched that there is little chance of a resolution or even a compromise.

The fall-back position in these cases must always be to let the people themselves decide the matter, but the Government is determined to impose it. That is  also a complete turnaround to the position taken by former Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson, who stopped the mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid, the synthetic form of dietary folate, in 2009. The substance was to be a compulsory addition to all bread to reduce the risk of babies have neural-tube defects such as spina bifida.

Apart from home baking, there was no alternative for those who objected. The proposal resulted in widespread public outrage at enforced mass medication and the loss of the right of people to make their own decisions. After an eight-week political battle, Wilkinson and her Government backed down. She had made her decision, claiming, “The clear message is that people want choice.”

That lesson seems to have been forgotten by current Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and his deputy, Peter Dunne, who arrogantly claimed that DHBs are “better placed to make that call” than councils on fluoridation”.

They may well be, but they not better placed to make that call than the people who drink the water. Nobody is.

This decision rightly belongs to the community at large and to take it away is a serious denial of the democratic right of people to decide such matters for themselves.

Water is more important to life than salt or bread and should be sacrosanct from unwanted additions at the whim of anyone, health experts or not.

It will be morally inexcusable to add fluoride to the water of those who don’t want it, regardless of the motivation to do so, particularly when cheap alternatives are available.

*Original article online at http://www.stuff.co.nz/waikato-times/opinion/78997275/Democracy-should-rule-in-the-fluoride-debate