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Kansas’ largest city and fluoride debate have long history

By | July 23, 2012

The state’s largest city has a long and colorful history with the issue. Pro- and anti-fluoride forces skirmished in the 1950s. They waged their first ballot battle in 1964.

In April that year, the city council voted 4-1 to fluoridate the water supply. But by June, fluoride opponents had gathered nearly 20,000 signatures to put the fluoride question to a vote.

“The battle lines were drawn,” said a Wichita Eagle story recounting the history in 1977. “It was a classic confrontation – a huge, disciplined force of organizations and experts on one side, a ragtag army banding together under one banner or another on the other.”

That ragtag army included members of the anti-communist John Birch Society. They circulated an anti-fluoride pamphlet titled “Fluoridation: ‘A Tool of the Communists’” during the intense three-month campaign. The brochure asked voters: “Shall we give the communists the machinery and the materials to destroy us by simply opening a valve in our water supply?”

The opponents carried the day 31,415 votes to 18,749.

In 1978, fluoride supporters came closer but lost a second election, 45,301 to 38,733.

They made another fluoridation push in 1999, but Bob Knight, mayor at the time, worked to keep the issue off the city’s agenda fearing that controversy over it would splinter support he needed to advance infrastructure initiatives.

Janet Miller, member of the Wichita City Council.

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“I wanted to spend my time on things that people could accomplish together,” Knight recalled. “And at the time, leaders on both sides were ready for war. I don’t think I ever went to a meeting where the discussion was civil.”

Déjà vu all over again

Recently, the pro-fluoride group Wichitans for Healthy Teeth started gathering signatures on a petition to put the issue on the city council’s agenda. Two anti-fluoride groups are circulating a petition of their own.

Vice Mayor Janet Miller is the most vocal fluoride supporter on the nine-member city council. That has made her a target of anti-fluoride activists, some of whom have resorted to personal attacks.

Though several council members said recently that the issue wasn’t among their priorities, Miller said she expected the petitions soon would force it onto the council’s agenda. She predicted the council once again would put the question to voters.

“My guess, if I had to guess today, would be that there would be a public vote versus just a council vote,” Miller said.

The Kansas Health Foundation, which is prohibited from attempting to influence governmental decisions because of its nonprofit tax status, stopped its fluoride education campaign when the grassroots groups began circulating their petitions.

“We felt we had accomplished our mission of stimulating conversations and stopped our campaign,” said Steve Coen, the foundation’s chief executive. “We are very pleased the community has decided to address this important issue and we now leave it in the hands of the citizens of Wichita.”

How Wichita residents might vote is uncertain. A recent poll by television station KWCH showed pro-fluoride forces with a narrow lead – 54 percent to 33 percent with 13 percent undecided. The poll of 600 likely voters had a margin of error of 4.1 percent.

Knight, the former mayor who kept the issue off the ballot in 1999, said the foundation’s education campaign was balanced and thought provoking. Even so, he remains a fluoride skeptic.

“But that doesn’t mean I can’t be convinced,” he said.

The current debate, like those of the past, also has been heated.

Travis Crank, one of the leaders of Fluoride Free Kansas, has called Miller a harsh name on the organization’s Facebook page and described her as a "leftist collectivist."

In an email, he declined to be interviewed by the KHI News Service because its parent organization, the Kansas Health Institute, receives substantial funding from the Kansas Health Foundation, which funded a multimedia fluoride education campaign this spring.

The anti-fluoride movement over the years has attracted conspiracy theorists and Crank apparently fits that mold.

A section of his Facebook page is devoted to the topic of “chemtrails,” the belief that jet contrails are chemical substances being dispersed by the government for various purposes, including population control, biological weapons testing and weather manipulation.

The KHI News Service is editorially independent from the policy and research side of KHI, which published an issue brief on fluoride in 2011.

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