By Ken Perrott 11/02/2016

Parliamentary Committee – proper place to discuss attitudes towards community water fluoridation?

So, the Whakatane District Council today reversed its decision to stop fluoridation (see Whakatane fluoride flip-flop). A decision made only a few weeks ago (see Fluoridation: Whakatane District Council makes the Hamilton mistake).

The new vote effectively acknowledges they had made a mistake – a mistake they would not have made if they had paid attention to what happened in Hamilton 2 – 3 years ago.

Well, really two mistakes:

1: Councils should not ignore the democratic will of the electorate without very good reasons. Sure, the referenda in Hamilton and Whakatane were non-binding. But they did represent the will of the people. And the council did not have adequate reasons for ignoring that will.

One difference in Whakatane is that only Ohope and Whakatane itself are fluoridated. The new resolution requests the council to decide whether to fluoridate other areas where the voters supported it – noticeably it effectively accepts the will of those voters opposed to fluoridation where they are a majority in a specific water treatment area.

2: Councils should not be so foolish as to think they can decide the science, or decide health matters. It amazes me that the mayor of Whakatane could acknowledge his council does not have scientific skills – yet he went ahead and got the council to make decisions about the science and health issues involved with community water fluoridation!

Perhaps he would not have done this if there had not been an ideologically and commercially motivated activist group pressuring the council. But that is no excuse.

Would this Mayor have succumbed to pressure from an activist group who disagreed with accepted science and technology of road and bridge building? Of house construction? Or any other matter the council considers. Just imagine what havoc a flat earth society or anti-gravity pressure group could play.

I would hope not. We cannot have such important issues endangered because a group with no skills in the matter takes it upon itself to think it can make decisions about the science, technology and health recommendations. Whatever pressure is coming from activist groups.

It is not the job of councils to decide such matters.

What should councils decide

Yes, they must decide on financial and operational matters involved with these issues. But they don’t get to decide the science and technology. It is hubris on their part to think they can.

Councils do have a role. As operators of water treatment plants they must decide on the financial and working matters. They must decide on the feasibility of specific water treatments.

Under current legislation, they must also take into account the attitudes of their electorate. The government and central health bodies recognise that community water fluoridation can be controversial for some people. Therefore, they encourage local communities to make the final decisions. It is noticeable that where Health Boards seek to extend community water fluoridation they use community consultation and education, including referenda, and do not impose a central demand.

In the end, no matter what the science says or what central health authorities recommend, it is up to communities to make up their minds on a controversial social policy – even if that results in a decision contrary to skilled recommendations.

But councils should not have any role in deciding the science or health policies. The appropriate bodies already do that and they make their recommendations. It is arrogant for councils to think they can, or should, rewrite those recommendations and conclusions about community water fluoridation.

Councils really have nothing to complain about

Councils complain they are being asked to make decisions they are not skilled to make – but that is up to them. If they accepted the conclusions and recommendation of the appropriate central bodies and limited their consideration to financial and working matters which are correctly within their skill set they would have nothing to complain about. Similarly, they should accept the democratic will of their voters on this issue (unless there are good financial or operational matters suggesting otherwise).

Perhaps there is need to remove councils from that assessment of community attitudes towards fluoridation. Let it be done by health boards.

As for the demand that so-called “independent”  or “alternative” groups have an input into decisions – surely the most appropriate place for that is at a central level – the parliamentary health committee or reviews by the Ministry of Health. Such considerations would be less influenced by the childish politics we often see at the local level – especially in election year (which is the case for Whakatane and was also for Hamilton).

Councils should stop sticking their noses into areas they have no authority or skills to make decisions on.