LOCAL councils will have five years to take up State Government funding to introduce water fluoridation or face it being forced on them, according to Premier Peter Beattie.
The Premier yesterday reopened the long-running fluoridation debate by announcing financial and legislative support for local councils to add fluoride to water supplies. He said the law which makes a referendum mandatory before councils can introduce fluoride to water would be changed to make the referendum optional.
The Government would also repay all capital costs associated with introducing fluoridation in communities with populations in excess of 5000 people. It estimated those costs to be $6 million across the 43 communities involved, prompting scepticism from council lobby group the Local Government Association of Queensland.
“I have just seen some purple pigs fly past my window,” said LGAQ executive director Greg Hallam. “The costs are far more significant than that.”
Only 5 per cent of Queenslanders, mostly in Townsville, drink fluoridated water, compared with more than 70 per cent of people in all other states of Australia.
Councils in Queensland have opted to keep their water fluoride-free but provide drops or tablets to families who want fluoride on an individual basis.
However, Mr Beattie said, it was time for a change and the Government might act after five years if Queensland did not reach Victorian levels, where 77 per cent of people drink fluoridated water.
“We’ll use a sweetener for five years and then, at the end of that, if we find that there’s not a huge take up, then, frankly, we will seriously consider mandating it,” he said.
The decision marked a significant turnaround for the Premier, who has steadfastly refused to legislate on fluoridation, claiming it was a council responsibility.
He attributed his change of heart to a pro-fluoride campaign by Health Minister Stephen Robertson after Peter Forster’s health system review.
A recent Queensland Health survey, in which 60 per cent of people supported fluoridation, gave him confidence that “overwhelmingly, people support this”.
“I’ve been the obstacle to this because, frankly, I thought local government should do it,” Mr Beattie said.
Mr Robertson said fluoridation could mean billions of dollars of savings to the state and the avoidance of between six and 11 million incidences of decayed, filled or missing tooth services.
“We currently spend about $40 million a year on school dental programs which is more than any other state, but, despite that investment, 45 per cent of children aged 12 years have tooth decay compared to 35 per cent nationally,” he said.
The announcement was welcomed by the Opposition, the Australian Medical Association ˆ Queensland and the Australian Dental Association. However, it was pilloried by major councils in southeast Queensland.
It came just weeks after the state’s councils called on the State Government to take ownership of the issue and make a statewide decision at the LGAQ annual conference.
ADA state president Michael Foley said the move was a “very positive start” but that he did not want to see costs lumped on local councils.