It is time to brace for fluoridation anger

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall with a glass of fluoridated Wellington water. PHOTO:...
Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall with a glass of fluoridated Wellington water. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT
Columnists like to give the impression of being oracles, but it does not take prophetic powers to figure out what is going to happen after this week’s effort rolls off the presses.

That is because this column is on water fluoridation, and past experience offers plenty of evidence what to expect.

Although I am not going to take a position for or against on this vexed issue, I can expect to receive several emails and to see several postings on social media which claim I am a shill for those wanting to mass medicate the population simply for reporting the debate.

There will also be a range of messages with links to sites which purport to contain the truth on the issue, and also to a smorgasbord of reportage with varying degrees of scientific credibility.

But before you feel any sympathy for me (go on, I know you have a smidgen) what rolls into my inbox is but a small sample compared to what MPs and local body politicians get when they start to talk about this issue.

As things stand, half of New Zealand’s water supply is fluoridated, a binary situation which exists mostly because local councils have historically controlled water quality and supply; they either do not have the resources, or the political will, to introduce what a range of medical experts will tell you is one of the simplest and most effective public health interventions around.

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall, raised in fluoride-free Te Anau before moving to fluoridated Dunedin to train as a doctor, pulled no punches as she led off the Health (Fluoridation of Drinking Water) Amendment Bill second reading debate on Tuesday.

"They have been confronted by a vocal lobby — I think it is fair to say a lobby that is highly selective at best with its science — which has made emotive plays, and has used disinformation.

"Local government is not resourced to be able to adjudicate the facts or otherwise of this disinformation; the Ministry of Health is."

To be fair to local government, central government has abdicated its role in this.

Like the cervical screening Bill discussed in last week’s Southern Say, the fluoridation Bill has lingered on the order paper for years — Peter Dunne was in charge of it at first reading, way back in 2016 and little has happened since the health select committee reported the Bill back a year later.

Successive governments have run scared of being harassed by the "vocal lobby" Dr Verrall described.

Such timidity is hard to understand, given everyone but New Zealand First voted for the Bill at first reading and it passed unanimously at Tuesday’s second reading.

Yes, it is an emotive and difficult topic but MPs are elected to tackle, not dodge, those debates.

What Dr Verrall has done is to provide extra cover for embattled legislators by designating the director-general of health the authority to make decisions on water fluoridation.

That will require an amendment to the old legislation, so the health select committee will reconvene for a brief submission period, which will no doubt attract hundreds of submissions.

Liz Craig. PHOTOS: PARLIAMENT TV
Liz Craig. PHOTOS: PARLIAMENT TV
That committee is chaired by Invercargill Labour list MP Liz Craig, a doctor whose specialist area is child health.

"There is a potential here for a huge improvement in oral health status for children by just making sure that many, many more children can actually have fluoridated drinking water," she told Parliament.

"Because having dental caries is a really, really bad way to start your life."

Invercargill National MP Penny Simmonds, although expressing some qualms about the potential loss of local input into decision-making over water, was in almost total agreement with her local political rival.

"We know that children living in areas with fluoridated water will have a 40% lower lifetime incidence of tooth decay," she said.

"So it does seem somewhat irresponsible of us not to ensure that all children are in that situation."

Binge viewing

Rachel Brooking. Photo: ODT files
Rachel Brooking. Photo: ODT files
Dunedin Labour list MP Rachel Brooking also weighed in during the fluoride debate, although her attempt to link town planning and health did not work out well.

"If we think, where did both planning and public health come out?" she asked.

"Arguably it’s 1854 and the cholera outbreak at Broad St in Soho, where — if anyone is a fan of The Crown, they will have seen the great episode with John Snow.

"Or have I got my shows mixed up? Was it the Queen Victoria show?"

"It was the Victoria show — it was Victoria, sorry."

Gone but not forgotten

The New Zealand Superannuation and Retirement Income (Fair Residency) Amendment Bill went through its second reading on Wednesday, with many a nod to its former sponsor.

Lawrence farmer Mark Patterson had the Bill drawn from the Member’s Bills biscuit tin raffle when he was a New Zealand First MP, and after his departure from politics National’s Andrew Bayly picked it up.

Ingrid Leary kicks off the parliamentary day. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT
Ingrid Leary. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT
Various MPs, including National Dunedin list MP Michael Woodhouse and Taieri Labour MP Ingrid Leary, gave Mr Patterson a nod of recognition.

"We got to know Mr Patterson really well when we were out campaigning," Ms Leary said. "What I saw was that he did a great job, even though he was a list MP, as being something of an electorate MP, so I would like to wish him well in his new role as the president of Federated Farmers in Otago."

On a promise

As noted a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was stymied from reading a story to pupils at Bathgate Park School, after a planned trip to Dunedin was called off due to fog.

Now, thanks Ms Leary, this sad state of affairs is on the parliamentary record.

"The children sent her letters, and the prime minister responded with a personal note, which ended up getting published in the newspaper," she said.

"She has promised to come back, so as the MP for that area, I will be sure to hold the prime minister to that promise."

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

 

Comments

And where does the fluoride come from?.

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