Taranaki health officials look set to join the affirmative side of the fluoridation debate.

At a Taranaki District Health Board health advisory committee meeting yesterday, members were presented with a position statement on the issue. Most backed the health benefits.

Committee member Dr Peter Catt said there was a chronic oral health issue in the region and he totally supported the statement, which backed fluoridation of drinking water at safe levels to help prevent tooth decay.

“In general practice we see the problems of dental care. It’s not just limited to pain and cosmetic issues – people have trouble simply eating,” Dr Catt said.

Healthy Taranaki development manager Becky Jenkins said oral health was a priority for the DHB and an issue with significant inequalities between Maori and non-Maori.

In Taranaki in 2010, 55 per cent of all five-year-old children were free of dental cavities, with 62 per cent of “other” ethnicities cavity-free, compared to only 33 per cent of Maori.

New Plymouth’s water has been fluoridated since 1970 with Waitara and Lepperton joining 20 years later and Urenui in 1999.

Inglewood, Oakura and Okato’s water supplies are not fluoridated and only Hawera’s urban supply in South Taranaki is.

Committee chairwoman Flora Gilkison said there was a lot of evidence-based research that fluoridation improved oral health.

“You do see huge improvements. They didn’t have it around when I was younger and there’s a huge difference between my oral health compared to that of my children.”

However, committee member Colleen Tuuta said she was unsure whether they had the right to choose what was put in people’s drinking water.

“The Maori statistics are not purely because of the drinking water. There are many more reasons as to why these are being tabled in front of us consistently over the years.”

She said if there was evidence for it, there would also be evidence against it and she did not want the decision taken out of an individual’s control.

Taranaki District Health Board chief executive Tony Foulkes said the statement fulfilled the board’s obligations to the public health of the community so others, such as district councils, could make responsible decisions.

He said the findings were provided by experts who understood the research.

Ms Tuuta replied that “you get what you ask for” when commissioning research such as that and abstained from voting.

The committee recommended the position statement be adopted, with the health board to make a final decision on it at its meeting next month.

The decision follows that of the New Plymouth District Council’s policy committee, that the issue of fluoridation be put up for debate again some time between August and October this year.

A tribunal option, whereby submissions are sought and council then also hears the arguments for and against in a public forum is expected to be used.

The oral health debate was reignited earlier this month when visiting American anti-fluoride campaigner Professor Paul Connett said in New Plymouth that fluoridation of water supplies was ineffective, dangerous to health and lowered IQs.