The State Government may compel rural communities to put fluoride in their water in a bid to cut tooth decay and counter a burgeoning demand on the public dental system.
Health Minister Bronwyn Pike said if water boards in areas such as Geelong, Ballarat and Wodonga failed to introduce fluoride, the Government could be forced to legislate.
“If we can’t achieve greater levels of fluoridation by encouragement and persuasion then I will have to examine the legislative options available to me,” Ms Pike said.
“I haven’t got a timetable but . . . if there is no improvement by next year I will review those options,” she said.
The move comes as public dental waiting lists continue to rise and follows suggestions by the Auditor-General last year that an increase in fluoride coverage be discussed “so that the incidence and cost of dental disease can be reduced over the long term”.
Most of the 75 per cent of Victorians who drink fluoridated water live in Melbourne, which introduced fluoride 25 years ago. Most state water authorities have not introduced the chemical because of community opposition. Some opponents say fluoride is a poison that can affect the human nervous system.
Ms Pike said the argument for fluoride was compelling as the chemical prevented tooth decay. “Prevention is better than cure,” she said.
Figures from Victoria’s dental schools program showed a six-year-old living in an area with fluoride had 40 per cent less tooth decay, she said. “It’s been proven time and time again to have beneficial outcomes for people,” she said.
Since the Bracks Government came to power, waiting lists for public dental care have jumped more than 50 per cent. More than 213,000 Victorians are now waiting an average of more than two years for a dental appointment.
At some clinics, patients are expected to wait more than four years to see a dentist. Rural areas are badly affected, with 30 per cent of public dental jobs vacant.
The chief executive of Dental Health Services Victoria, Tracey Batten, said much of the state did not have fluoride. “In the past 10 years, only one water board has taken the step to introduce fluoride, and that was last September around the Bendigo-Kyneton area,” she said.
“Dental decay is the most prevalent health condition in the country. Gum disease is the third. Both are preventable conditions and fluoride would help.”
Ms Pike said each dollar spent on fluoride saved $30 in dental care. To opponents she said: “I’d say to them, ‘Your children will not thank you in the future’.”
Ms Pike said she would work with former health minister and now Water Minister John Thwaites to persuade communities to adopt fluoride.
Opposition health spokesman David Davis said the growing problems with public dental health presented an opportunity to re-examine the wider use of water fluoridation.
A spokesman for Barwon Water, which covers Geelong, said the community had an active anti-fluoride movement. He said Barwon Water would not comment on Ms Pike’s proposals until it had more details.