With Calgary heading towards a seventh plebiscite on fluoride as part of this October’s municipal election, little has been heard from provincial health authorities on the issue — a stark contrast to the last campaign in 1998, said University of Calgary medical bioethicist Dr. Juliet Guichon.
Back then, the direct involvement by Alberta Health Service’s predecessor — the Calgary Regional Health Authority (CRHA) — and its expenditure of $380,000 in 2021 dollars helped prompt Calgarians to vote 55 per cent in favour of keeping fluoride in the city’s water supply.
“We would like to have some certainty about what Alberta Health Services will do — if anything,” said Guichon, president of the group Calgarians for Kids’ Health.
“There’s going to be dissemination of information which requires money and we very much hope AHS will do what was done in the successful 1998 plebiscite.”That year, the CRHA’s medical officer of health Dr. Brent Friesen led the pro-fluoridation forces in a campaign that included building partnerships and educating medical professionals and the public.Following that effort, an expert panel urged public health officials’ pro-fluoridation messaging be maintained because “there will be continued challenges by those who oppose water fluoridation.”
Since the creation of the AHS in 2008, “it’s abandoned the field — they just don’t advocate for it because they’re afraid they’ll be presented with the bill,” said Guichon.
In contrast, she said fluoride opponents will commit considerable resources to the fight because Calgary’s removal of the substance a decade ago is considered a bellwether victory.
“If Calgary turns back (towards fluoride), other jurisdictions will turn back,” said Guichon.
But a leading opponent of re-fluoridation scoffed at Guichon’s contention, saying it’s his side that’s fighting the battle on a shoestring while his foes are already running billboard ads.
“If you gave me a tenth of their money, we’d have a major victory,” said Dickson of the group Safe Water Calgary.
“They’ve got money and the media on their side, we have the truth, science and common sense on ours.”
City staff say reintroducing fluoride would cost $30.1 million over a 20-year service life, but the cost wouldn’t drive up water utility rates.
On Feb. 1 of this year, council voted by a 10-4 margin to hold yet another plebiscite on the issue, on the next municipal election ballot.
When Postmedia recently requested an interview with the province’s dental public health officer Dr. Rafael Figueiredo, the AHS said in a written statement, “It’s too early yet for us to discuss what role AHS might take in the campaign.”
In the same statement, it described community water fluoridation as “a foundational public health measure to prevent dental disease and improve oral health.
“Research continues to show that communities with fluoridated water observe 20 per cent to 40 per cent fewer dental caries in comparison to non-fluoridated communities,” it said.
“This preventive measure is recognized by the scientific community as being safe, economical and effective and it reaches all segments of the population, particularly people with lower income, for whom other preventive measures may be inaccessible.”
The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control has said fluoridating drinking water supplies is one of the 20th century’s greatest health achievements.
Even so, opponents argue such fluoridation is medicating without consent, while there are other means available of individually delivering fluoride through toothpaste or supplements. And, they argue fluoride is a toxic substance with dubious, even negative, health outcomes.
“Politicians should not mass medicate, nor should citizens vote by plebiscite on who should be medicated,” said Dickson, who called city council’s move to hold a plebiscite “an abdication of responsibility.”