By Ken Perrott 29/05/2016

Tom O’Connor, president of Grey Power, describes community water fluoridation (CWF) as the “Tyranny of the Majority” (see “Fluoridation of water a trampling of our right,” Timaru Courier, May 26th).


Well, it is nice to see an anti-fluoridation piece which does not resort to scientific misrepresentations and distortions.* These fallacious “scientific” arguments a really just a proxy for the underlying political or values beliefs of the person advancing them. It would be more honest if we discussed these instead of wasting time on the scientific arguments. So, thank you, Tom.

But what about this “tyranny of the majority” argument? Most anti-fluoride campaigners will probably support it.  While we might have  an idea of what it means here is a more specific definition offered by Wikipedia:

“The phrase “tyranny of the majority” (or “tyranny of the masses“) is used in discussing systems of democracy and majority rule. It involves a scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests above those of an individual or minority group, constituting active oppression comparable to that of a tyrant or despot. In many cases a disliked ethnic, religious, political, or racial group is deliberately penalized by the majority element acting through the democratic process.”

Freedom of choice

So I think O’Connor has let his emotions get out of hand here. Sure, CWF usually results from a majority decision, but there is no deliberate penalising of any minority group. In fact, “fluoride-free” community taps are often provided by councils to make sure the minority freedom of choice is maintained. Where is the tyranny in that?

There may be a number of reasons for people to object to the quality of the provided tap water – the taste, presence of chlorine, colour, etc. Tap filters are common – and specific filters are available for removing fluoride, chlorine. colour, tastes, etc. Bottled water or water from different “natural” sources are also used by people who object to tap water for one reason or another. In some countries people (and especially tourists) never drink tap water – they use bottled water.

Whenever I check with anti-fluoride campaigners I find they already exert their freedom of choice by obtaining their drinking water from a separate source or using a fluoride removal system like an appropriate tap filter, distillation or reverse osmosis. You have to ask – if they have already exerted their freedom of choice, what the hell are they talking about with this argument? Perhaps the freedom to prevent the choice of those who voted for a safe and effective social health measure – CWF?

Fluoridation is medicine myth

O’Connor evokes the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 – in particular the clause which says:

“Everyone has the right to refuse to undergo any medical treatment.”

This clause in Part 2 of the Act – Civil and political Rights – includes rights such as not being deprived of life,  subjected to torture or cruel treatment and not being subjected to medical or scientific experimentation. This suggests he is again being rather extreme to see CWF as a form of forced medical treatment. Hell, it isn’t even a form of forced drinking of tap water given that no-one is denied alternatives.

In fact, New Zealand legislation is clear that fluoride is not a medicine when used at the low concentration present in fluoridated water. Anti-fluoride campaigners have attempted to challenge that in court but every attempt has been rejected. See here and here for example.

Tom O’Connor plays down these decisions – always hopeful that the next appeal by New Health NZ will succeed. But in doing so he is attempting to push the proverbial uphill.

But, to hell with the legislation. O’Connor argues:

“it is illogical to argue that fluoride is not  a medical treatment but then introduce it to drinking water to combat tooth decay.”

Then what does he, and his anti-fluoride mates, think of chlorination of  our drinking water supplies. This disinfection process is not a medical treatment but is clearly meant to prevent disease. According to O’Connor’s logic, it should be seen as a medical treatment and thus subject to the Bill of Rights! Incidentally, many opponents of CWF are also opposed to chlorination. But tend to be less public about this preferring to see CWF as the “low hanging fruit” and mobilisation against chlorination a future project once CWF has been defeated.

Incidentally, many opponents of CWF are also opposed to chlorination. But they tend to be less public about this preferring to see CWF as the “low hanging fruit” and mobilisation against chlorination a future project once CWF has been defeated.

O’Connor extends his logic:

“If it [CWF] is a medical treatment the Bill of Rights clearly prohibits its introduction to communal drinking water. If it is not a medical treatment to combat tooth decay, there is no logical reason to introduce it to communal drinking water. There is no middle ground.”

The fact that exactly the same logic can be applied to iodised salt or the disinfection of communal drinking water by chlorination surely shows the danger of bush lawyers taking it into their own hands to define and interpret the law.

Just imagine if a minority managed to prevent communal water disinfection by using the Bill of Rights, the right to refuse to undergo medical treatment, their perverted concept of “freedom of choice” and arbitrary definition of chlorination as a “medicine.” Doing this, and at the same time denigrating democratic decisions as the “tyranny of the majority” they would, in fact, be imposing their own tyranny of a minority. One that denied a safe and effective water treatment process prevent sickness and spread of diseases.

The science is resolvable

The debate may not be resolvable, given that is driven by ideological factors. But the science is resolvable. The effectiveness or otherwise of CWF is an objective fact which can be determined by proper investigation of reality. Yes, that requires scientific and health experts and not lay people.

The wise lay person recognises their limitations in areas outside of their expertise and takes the advice of the expert. We listen to the advice of mechanics about our cars, builders about house construction, engineers about road construction, oncologists about cancer treatment, etc. We should do the same with the science related to CWF.

*Note: O’Connor still manages to misrepresent the scientific aspects by saying:

“The key issue here, however, is not the effectiveness or otherwise of fluoride as a treatment for oral health. That is an unresolvable argument between competing proponents and opponents which lay people are  not equipped or even obliged to decide.”

Featured image: CC flickr Enid Martindale

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