Dentists and politicians alike welcome a health ministry directive to fluoridate Rotorua’s water, but a local MP says cheaper dental trips would be more effective.
The reactions follow the announcement by Health Director-General Ashley Bloomfield on Wednesday that 14 local authorities – including the Rotorua Lakes Council – would be instructed to add fluoride to some or all of their water supplies.
It was the first time the power had been used since a change in law last year to allow it.
Rotorua Lakes Council was asked to add fluoride to two of its nine supplies – the central and eastern water supplies.
However, the government added a financial sweetener with an invitation to 14 local authorities to apply for part of a $11.3 million fund for capital projects to enable fluoridation.
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick, a former midwife, said fluoridation was controversial and “often emotional” but “long overdue”.
“I have always believed that decisions about fluoridation should be made by health authorities responsible for public health, rather than leaving it to local authorities.
“Consecutive [Rotorua] councils have not been able to reach a consensus and the vote has always gone against fluoridation.
“Some in our community may not be happy about this, but as a former health professional and former associate health minister, I personally support fluoridation as a public health initiative.”
Retired Rotorua dentist Stewart Edward said fluoride is an “important part” of a dental health “toolkit” in addition to consistent oral hygiene, regular dental visits and a good diet.
“I really welcome it. I’m excited to see it.”
He said there was so much analysis about its benefits that it was time it became a “natural part” of tooth decay prevention.
“Oral health is such an important part of overall health.”
He said it had been a “contentious issue” for some time, but its implementation would lead to better health outcomes for the community.
Rotorua District Councilor Fisher Wang said it was a move he welcomed “with open arms” and that it was “a very long wait.”
“It is absolutely necessary.
“Something like that is almost a bare minimum the Department of Health can do to improve oral hygiene in New Zealand.”
He said New Zealand had poor statistics for oral hygiene and tooth decay.
“It’s a serious problem that really needs to be addressed, and this is one of the springboards to tackle it.”
He said dental services were often “priceless” for some families and that fluoridation would help reduce that, although it would take some time to pay off.
He said some people had “some concerns” about fluoride, but that there was “so much research” not just in New Zealand, but worldwide on fluoride.
Wang said it was something he wanted to change when he was elected to the council, but after the 2021 law change, it was taken out of the hands of the councils.
Waiariki MP and Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi said the priority should be to make oral health checks affordable, in addition to increasing oral health education in schools and with whānau.
“We’re not going to get drunk to improve oral health inequalities for whānau.
“Access to oral health is a huge problem for our Māori and Pasifika communities.
“What also helps prevent tooth decay is eating healthy foods. Solutions such as removing the GST from healthy kai such as fruits and vegetables so that whānau can afford to live a healthier lifestyle will help reduce the health inequalities facing our communities face in the long run.”
Rotorua MP Todd McClay said he agreed the decision was taken out of the hands of politicians and given to health professionals, but said he had lobbied to consult local communities.
“It doesn’t look like that happened.”
He was also concerned that funding for its implementation would not go far enough and did not want Rotorua’s taxpayers to foot the bill.
Regan Fraser, deputy director of the Rotorua Lakes Council, said the council would consider the information provided and look into the necessary steps needed to implement the directive.
That includes upgrades to the drinking water treatment plant for the central and eastern supplies, he said.
“Fluoridation is a policy issue that has been considered a number of times by elected members in the past, with successive councils opposing the introduction of fluoride into our water supply.”
The council last considered fluoridation in 2014, he said.
Lyall Thurston, who previously served on the Lakes District Health Board before it was disbanded on July 1, said he understood that fluoridation was a “polarizing” problem, but he was “led by health professionals,” especially dentists.
He said the directive was “an important public health initiative”.
On Wednesday, Bloomfield said fluoridation has been proven to be a “safe, affordable and effective method of preventing tooth decay.”
“General water fluoridation benefits everyone, but especially children, Māori, Pasifika and our most vulnerable.”
He said fluoridation was supported by the Pasifika Dental Association and Te Ao Mārama (the Māori Dental Association).
“Water fluoridation helps prevent tooth decay, along with brushing your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, eating a healthy diet and avoiding sugary drinks.
“Fluoride in water acts as a constant repair kit for your teeth.”
The role of fluoride in water had been “well-researched” around the world for the past 60 years, including in New Zealand, Bloomfield said.
The office of the Prime Minister’s chief scientific adviser had also examined new information on water fluoridation and found there was no evidence that the fluoride levels used in New Zealand caused significant health problems.
“Fluoridated water is safe for anyone to drink — including infants and the elderly — and fluoride occurs naturally in air, soil, freshwater, seawater, plants and in food,” Bloomfield said.
The 2009 New Zealand Oral Health Survey found that children and adolescents living in areas with fluoridated water had a 40 percent lower rate of tooth decay than those living in areas without water.
The Health (Fluoridation of Drinking Water) Amendment Act 2021 shifted decision-making power over community water fluoridation from local authorities to the Director-General of Health on the grounds that it was “a health-based decision,” a statement from the Ministry of Health said. Health said.
The ministry estimated that adding fluoride to the water supplies of the 14 municipalities would increase the percentage of New Zealanders receiving fluoridated water from 51 percent to 60 percent.
It also said it was likely the Director-General of Health would “actively consider” later this year whether to issue further instructions on fluoridation.
“The Department of Health will monitor improvements over time in the oral health of communities receiving water fluoridation.”
The other councils that received the directive on Wednesday were Whangārei District Council, Western Bay of Plenty District Council, Waitaki District Council, Waipā District Council, Tauranga City Council, Tararua District Council, New Plymouth District Council, Nelson City Council, Kawerau District Council, Horowhenua District Council, Hastings District Council, Far North District and Auckland Council.
The time it takes for each municipality to fluoridate their water ranges from six months to more than three years, depending on the conditions of the facility.
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air