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Fluoridation: NZ’s go to local government obsession

Fluoridation: New Zealand’s go to local government obsession.

For Immediate Release

20 April 2017

When University of Waikato student Luke Oldfield turned on the news in 2013 to discover Hamilton city council (HCC) was ending community water fluoridation, he was baffled by the decision. The moment not only led Oldfield to examine the global anti-fluoride movement, it also influenced the direction of his studies, moving him to look into why communities continually revisit this fairly innocuous public health measure.

For decades, opposition to community water fluoridation has persisted - despite considerable research showing that the practice is a safe and effective way to reduce tooth decay. Oldfield’s soon to be released master’s dissertation helps explain why community water fluoridation decisions are so frequently challenged. The University of Waikato granted Oldfield a scholarship to analyse the 2013 HCC submission data that had ultimately led to the HCC decision. The results of this preliminary research became the focus of his dissertation. Oldfield found that about two-thirds of all submissions to HCC had been prepared by, or collated by, Fluoride Free New Zealand - many of whom did not live in Hamilton.

What really captured Oldfield’s attention though was international events and how they had filtered down to cities like Hamilton. He found that the worldwide umbrella group for anti-fluoride activism, Fluoride Action Network, was soliciting private donations, as well as collecting $25,000 a year from Joseph Mercola, an internet entrepreneur who operates a controversial online store retailing supplements and water filters. Mercola has been reprimanded many times by the US Food & Drug Administration for making unsubstantiated claims regarding his natural health products. Closer to home, celebrity chef Pete Evans, a vocal critic of fluoridation, has marketed water bottles he claims reduce fluoride.

“It’s important to underline that not every person who opposes fluoridation has a financial interest,” Oldfield says. “Shrewd marketers such as Mercola can tap into people's insecurities about the role of government in their lives.” Oldfield contends this may be the result of increasing financial marginalisation of many New Zealanders. “Thirty years of dramatic economic transformation certainly hasn’t done much to wed large sections of society to the idea that the government has their best interests at heart,” he suggests.

Oldfield believes the marginalisation issue looms large for those interested in promoting evidence-based policy in New Zealand. “How do we communicate scientific concepts to people that are already emboldened to think in an entirely different way?” he asks.

In addition to advocating for stronger science communication, Oldfield hopes the government will favour the University of Waikato’s proposal to set up a medical school on their Hamilton campus. “I’m optimistic more GPs on the ground would translate into a community more reassured about important public health interventions such as vaccines and fluoridation,” he says.

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