How Fear Has Conquered Facts in the Debate About Water Fluoridation

I grew up in a small town in Southeast Kansas without fluoridated water. I do not need statistics to tell me the benefits of fluoridated water. Despite being the model patient and doing everything I was told by my dentist, I still heard those dreaded words: you have a cavity.
Statistics tell us:

  • Water fluoridation is estimated to reduce tooth decay by up to 40%
  • Every dollar spent on water fluoridation saves $38 in dental costs.
  • The American Dental Association (ADA), the United States Public Health Service (USPHS), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the World Health Organization (WHO), among many other national and international organizations, endorse community water fluoridation.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognized water fluoridation as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.

Yet despite this information, voters in some states and municipalities have voted against adding fluoride to their water. Some have even attempted to repeal existing laws that requires water fluoridation. Why? Blame the power of fear and effective messaging.

Anti-fluoridation activists have done a masterful job of reframing the debate with inaccurate and misleading information that questions the safety and effectiveness of water fluoridation, despite little evidence to support their claims.

As the opposition becomes more organized, better funded and increasingly energized, the movement toward water fluoridation is losing momentum. Health groups are lagging in their support of water fluoridation, elected officials have labeled it too controversial, and there is no strong national coalition of advocates.

At last week’s Grantmakers in Health conference, I attended a workshop, “Can Reason Win? A New Campaign in Defense of Oral Health,” that discussed the current state of the anti-fluoridation movement. My biggest takeaway was that as advocates of oral health ignore the battle of water fluoridation, opponents are framing the debate and defining the discussion.

Headlines such as “This isn’t about Fighting. It’s about Facts. Let’s Discuss Fluoridation Based on Science, Not Science Fiction,” have shown to be effective, we just aren’t using them.

So let’s try a new strategy. Let’s talk about the truth. Let’s talk about how many teeth have been lost due to lack of water fluoridation. Let’s explain that any risks have been thoroughly investigated, and it’s evident that none really exist. Let’s talk about how ending fluoridation hurts kids. Let’s refocus this debate on our teeth.

A new campaign has been created to help advocates spread these messages. The Coalition in Defense of Oral Health was created to ensure every American has access to the most inexpensive, effective and basic oral health intervention – fluoridation. Their new campaign, Life is Better with Teeth, focuses on promoting oral health and the truth about fluoridation. The campaign website has educational materials such as fact sheets and power points, and advocacy items including t-shirts and bumper stickers, all based around a simple message that no one can disagree with – Life is Better with Teeth.


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Oral Health

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HCF's Local Health Buzz Blog aims to discuss health and health policy issues that impact the uninsured and underserved in our service area. To submit a blog, please contact HCF Communications Officers, Jennifer Sykes, at jsykes@hcfgkc.org.

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