Caught in the middle of an increasingly ugly debate between health officials and the anti-fluoride lobby, the Grey District Council put it to residents to decide whether to dose public water supplies with sodium fluoride to help reduce dental decay.
Their answer, in a binding referendum, finally puts the issue to rest: 4228 against and 1609 in favour. About 60 per cent of electors voted.
The result is a body blow for the West Coast District Health Board, which poured $13,000 into advertising and other campaigns for fluoridation.
Coasters Against Fluoride secretary Christine Banks said it showed that people would listen to the information and decide for themselves “rather than be told how to think by the so-called experts”.
The health board, which earlier claimed that a survey showed most West Coasters wanted fluoridation, said people had been scared off.
“Unfortunately, when someone says it will give you cancer, even if they don’t have the evidence to back those claims up, then of course people are going to be frightened,” chief executive Kevin Hague said.
He reminded people that two million New Zealanders drank fluoridated water and knew that it was safe.
The fluoride debate has bombarded West Coasters with information for the past five months, in council hearings, leaflet drops, advertising campaigns and hundreds of letters to the editor, but it has not been a clean debate on either side.
Opponents accused the district health board of falsifying submissions to the council, while the district health board accused the anti-fluoride lobby of harassing hospital staff and intimidating councillors who had voted for fluoridation with late-night phone calls.
They also took each other to the Advertising Standards Complaints Board for allegedly advertising misinformation in local newspapers.
The advertising board upheld the complaints from the district health board that an advert featuring the skull and crossbones, and another from Grey District Councillor Ian Cummings that likened fluoride to acid, had played on people’s fears and breached the advertising code of ethics.
Although the Grey District Council initially ignored the opposition and voted for fluoridation at the May meeting, the anti-fluoride lobby protested that it had been ambushed.
Buoyed by the initial success in Greymouth the district health board tried the same in Hokitika, but had not bargained on such a determined opposition from residents and the Westland District Council.
Opponents regrouped in Greymouth, persuaded enough councillors to change their minds and in July the earlier support for fluoridation was rescinded in favour of a public referendum.
Banks said yesterday the referendum result was a victory for the common man and common sense.
The 72 per cent of opposition was “as good as we could have hoped for,” especially considering that in many rural areas people had probably not bothered to vote, thinking it would not directly affect them.
Hague said the referendum became a debate about whether fluoridation was safe rather than whether it was effective in reducing tooth decay.
He thanked those who had voted for fluoridation for taking the time to do something that would have benefited them and the community.
“As an organisation we would have been totally remiss if we had not pursued something with such obvious and proven benefits,” he said. “If someone asked me would we do it all again, the answer would be an unequivocal yes.”
A district health board spokeswoman said it would have to take another look at the proposal to try fluoridation in Westport.