A crucial referendum

20:50, Jul 15 2013

A recent poll showed 48 per cent of New Zealanders supported the addition of fluoride to their drinking water, almost twice as many as the 25 per cent who opposed its use, even though anti-fluoridation lobbyists have mounted strong public campaigns to reject it. Those campaigns have been successful in having fluoridation of public water supplies discontinued in some areas, including Hamilton, despite a citizens' referendum in 2006 having decisively supported continuation with further support from citizens for the treatment in recent polling.

Better late than never, the council has decided to conduct a fluoridation referendum at this year's local body elections. This could be different to the council result in June when only eight of 13 councillors voted, seven voting to remove the fluoride. Councillors who also serve on the district health board - the most likely to be informed on the issue - were directed to abstain because of a conflict of interest.

True, the council did consider the benefits of fluoridation claimed by its advocates (which include the NZ Dental Association, the Ministry of Health and the World Dental Federation) against the disadvantages and harm claimed by opponents. As with similarly controversial scientific debates such as climate change, it's the weight of evidence that should matter when the community's wellbeing is at stake. That weight is on fluoridation's side.

Most scientists and health experts lamented that Hamilton had taken a big step backwards when it ignored the advice of those who know fluoridation's benefits, including its own district health board and medical officers of health. The referendum will give voters an opportunity to tell the incoming council what they think about that step backwards. The referendum is not binding, but only a bold (or stupid) council would ignore it.

Whether councillors should have to weigh scientific arguments and make judgments for which they are not trained is a good question. Mayor Julie Hardaker made that point when she said such decisions should be made by central government. But central government is content for it to remain a local body matter, and the opinion polls show a great deal of common sense resides among citizens. Let's hope some of it rubs off on to the next council.