A Rotorua public health official backs fluoridating local water supplies to cut child tooth decay rates, despite longstanding opposition to the move.

The Government is being urged to give district health boards the final say on putting fluoride in town water supplies.

A recent inquiry into child health by the parliamentary health committee recommended the Government invest in a nationwide oral health campaign and transfer responsibility of water fluoridation from local councils to the Ministry of Health.

DHBs would decide standards on the “optimal level of fluoridation” in local water supplies, and work with local councils to put the standards in place.

At present, councils vote on whether to add fluoride to the water, and how much to add.

Rotorua has only ever had fluoridated water for six months, in 1979. A referendum resulted in discontinuation.

Last month Whakatane held a referendum on whether to continue fluoridating its water, with 60 per cent of voters supporting its use.

Bay of Plenty and Lakes District Health Board medical officer of health Dr Phil Shoemack said the Public Health team was “certainly convinced” of the benefits of people having fluoridated water.

“We don’t really have a view on how that’s best achieved. Whichever is likely to be most effective I guess would be the answer.”

Public Health had advocated using fluoride to the Whakatane community during last month’s referendum.

“Children drinking fluoridated water have lower rates of dental decay, we do know that. There’s no doubt about its effectiveness.”

Communities remain bitterly divided on whether to add fluoride to drinking water supplies.

Hamilton residents voted overwhelmingly to retain fluoride last month after a heated debate saw the council remove it in July.

In Hastings, a fluoride referendum was held alongside council elections last month. Residents voted to retain water fluoridation.

Anti-fluoridation group Fluoride Action Network New Zealand has argued fluoride can be linked to arthritis, thyroid dysfunction, lowered IQ and hypersensitivity.

However the parliamentary health committee’s report said scientific evidence was clear that adding fluoride to a town water supply in appropriate monitored doses led to a reduction of dental decay in children, particularly children living in low socioeconomic families.

It recommended health experts monitor “strong scientific evidence” to back up their decisions on adding fluoride to water.

However, Health Minister Tony Ryall said fluoridation of public water supplies was a decision for local communities.

“The Government’s role is to support local councils when they decide to use fluoride – not to make the decision for them, and we are not considering changing that.”

Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule said it would be a “huge shift” to give DHBs the power to fluoridate water supplies.

“I think it probably sits better there than it does with the [councils], we have no experience about the health risks so I would probably welcome that overall.”