2 steps backwards


Queensland’s decision to give local councils control of fluoride in water has met with condemnation from dental authorities, but it has not stopped six councils from making their water fluoride free. The battle has only just begun. By John Burfitt

tapwaterA war has erupted between Canberra and Brisbane in the battle over dental healthcare through the fluoridation of water. While the Sunshine State might presently be winning the war of words, they might well lose the battle over the state of Queensland’s quality of dental health.

In late November, the Newman Liberal government made legislative changes to restore local control of fluoride management across Queensland. In doing so, it reversed the 2007 laws in which fluoridation of public water supplies was made mandatory across Queensland.

With local councils across the state now in charge of fluoridation, it is up to local areas to determine the state of their water. Since November, nine councils have removed fluoride from their drinking water, including Cairns, Bundaberg and the Fraser Coast.

In the case of Cairns, which made the change in January, a council spokesperson is reported to have claimed fluoride in the water amounts to “involuntary medication” of residents, adding, “If people want to have access to fluoride, they need to take that up with their dentists.”

The change in the fluoridation laws is part of the promise made by Campbell Newman during the 2012 state election campaign to empower councils and remove some decision-making from the state. What has erupted since November, however, is a war of words between respective ministers in Canberra and Brisbane, as well as between the Queensland government and the Australian Dental Association (ADA).

It has also unleashed words between ministers within Newman’s own ministry, including a strong pro-fluoride stance from the Minister for Education, Training and Employment John-Paul Langbroek, who is also a dentist.

The ADA released a statement in February claiming it was “outraged and dismayed at the government’s lack of leadership to support the well-established scientific evidence that proves fluoridation of water supplies is safe”.

ADA federal president Dr Karin Alexander stated, “The Queensland and now other state governments’ decision to permit ill-informed local councils to choose to stop fluoridation of water supplies represent a failure to protect the public’s oral health. These local councils seem to be responding to fringe groups’ falsely based scare mongering and are not considering the scientifically well-established benefits of fluoridation.”

Both Premier Newman and Health Minister Lawrence Springborg have spoken in support of fluoridation of water, yet when asked by Bite to respond to the ADA’s criticisms, a spokesperson for Springborg said the government’s decision was based on its commitment to devolved decision-making.

“Queensland is Australia’s most decentralised state. Local water sources and supply arrangements vary and are administered by local authorities. The inclusion of fluoride imposes a capital and recurrent cost burden. Although money has been provided to assist councils with the capital component, recurrent costs remain an issue for local ratepayers. In these circumstances, the government believes decisions about fluoridisation are best made locally. Queensland Health and the Health Minister continue to advise communities and councils about the positive advantages of fluoridisation. It is up to local authorities to assess those advantages against their other priorities,” he said.

The position does appear to have the support of the local constituency, and marks a changing of the times. In a 2007 Galaxy Poll for The Courier-Mail newspaper, 62 per cent of Queenslanders wanted fluoride, but in a recent online Courier-Mail poll, 61.3 per cent of voters (of 7496 respondents) supported the removal of fluoride from Queensland water.

“The biggest health intervention in dental care in Australia for decades is putting fluoride in water.” – Tanya Plibersek, Federal Minister for Health

tanya_plibersekFederal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek has challenged Premier Newman to reverse the decision. “He’s allowed councils to take this incredibly irresponsible action. He should act and show some leadership as premier,” she told AAP in February. “This will mean people will have unnecessary fillings and extractions of teeth down the track.”

On ABC-TV’s Q&A in February, Plibersek continued her crusade. “The biggest health intervention in dental care in Australia for decades is putting fluoride in water,” she said. “Any dentist you talk to will tell you they can tell who grew up in Queensland where they have had less fluoride in the water. They’ve got a mouthful of filings compared to people who have grown up with fluoride.”

She then labelled comments made by Queensland LNP MP Jason Woodforth as “nuts”. Woodforth had been reported in The Courier-Mail calling fluoride “brain-altering poison” and claimed that the problem of tooth decay could be fixed with diet rather than adding what he called “toxic poison” to water.

His comments also earned a rebuke by fellow Minister Langbroek, who stated it was “an open and shut case” that fluoride prevented tooth decay and councils should not opt out.

When asked by Bite for his response to the ADA’s recent criticisms, Langbroek said that the decision by councils to remove fluoride from their drinking water was a terrible mistake.

“My biggest concern is that many of the councils are making ill-judged decisions that will have long-term health ramifications,” says Langbroek.

“Many of the councils that are choosing to opt out represent some of our most disadvantaged areas and it’s the children in these communities that will get the most benefit from fluoride.

“Queensland has the highest rate of decayed, missing and filled teeth in Australia and we are still the only state that doesn’t have a completely fluoridated water supply.

“If this was any other disease and we ignored the best way to prevent it, there would be a public outcry.”

While politicians continue to wage a war of words, it will be Queensland dental clinics that could well become the new frontline of the battle.

Dr Vas Srinivasan, the director of Dental Specialist Centre in Hervey Bay, says he is concerned what the changes will do to the general state of the dental health of patients.

“I agree with the ADA that it is a complete failure to protect families from the ill effects of carbonated drinks, high sugar diet and refined/processed foods,” Dr Srinivasan says.

“As dentists, we have been educated to provide quality healthcare, educate our patients and work with them to prevent problems. Throughout the western world, public water fluoridation is very common and is efficiently controlled and delivered without any long-term side effects. Queensland cannot be an exception to this.

“When the state government passes the buck to the local councils, it shows it does not want to court controversy. This must be a federal/state matter, not a local council matter. People and politicians of Queensland don’t have to look far to see what other states are doing. We are definitely going backward in terms of being able to provide oral health care for our younger generation,” says Dr Srinivasan.

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