Timaru Campaign

On the 3rd of November 2022 the Director General of Health wrote to the Timaru District Council advising them that they are likely to receive a Directive to fluoridate their water.

On the 27th June 2023, representatives from Fluoride Free New Zealand presented to the Council. Watch presentations and comments from the mayor and councillors at the end.

Also on the 27th June, a debate was held between Mary Byrne and Kane Titchener against two local Timaru dentists, Mark Goodhew and Fraser Dunbar. Unfortunately the dentists did not want the debate videoed but Mary explains what happened in this Reality Check Radio Interview.


2 October 2016 Little candidate support for water fluoridation in South Canterbury Timaru Herald

1 April 2016 SCDHB supports benefits of fluoride in water supply Timaru Herald

23 July 2015 Thirty years without fluoride in Timaru Timaru Herald


Imelda 3

Imelda Hitchcock at the time of writing, aged 82.
Imelda’s battle began in 1980, successfully ending fluoridation in 1985.
But the ‘pushers’ have kept at it – and so has Imelda

The full story of the battle to free Timaru from fluoridation can be read here (PDF, opens in a new window).

The Campaign

From the time the issue of fluoridation was raised in 1957 there were people showing opposition. The council debated the issue in 1964 and 1965, and held a referendum in 1966. The vote went against fluoridation and the council abode by the result. The plant had been ordered from Australia, and was eventually sold to the Waimairi County Council. (Waimairi later stopped fluoridation, statistics showing no benefit)
However, in May 1972 a subsequent council called for submissions on fluoridation after heeding pressure from those who wanted it. Opposing views were put forward at an August meeting. However, the council decided to go ahead with fluoridation at the October council meeting, by an 8-5 majority (without putting the issue back to the people). It commenced in August, 1973.

In 1974 Imelda Hitchcock noticed health problems, and found upon using unfluoridated water they went away. But by 1980 she had had enough of collecting water, and wrote a letter to the paper. Interest “grew like Topsy”. Eventually, Imelda found herself leading the antifluoridation campaign.

The community was very hostile toward fluoridation from the time it began 1973. Imelda placed a coupon in the paper, over a long weekend, for people to sign (which she paid for) asking the council to hold a referendum. It looked as if it belonged with a Building Society Advertisement directly underneath it. There was a very pro-fluoride editor in Timaru at that time. Anti-fluoridation letters were almost prohibited, especially if they contained ‘unfavourable’ information. For all that, over 1100 signatures were received by the Tuesday. Only when the sub-editor became the editor was the antifluoridation side were treated more fairly.

The council ignored the signatures calling for a referendum. When the total reached 3288 the council debated the issue again, but ignored the people’s wishes.

Then the local radio station ran a straw poll and Imelda’s group, after some time, ran an unofficial telephone poll, both of which both came out against fluoridation. We had a TV placed in a shop window with an audio lead onto the street and kept playing an informative video. It was quite surprising the number of people who would stop to see what it was all about and of course, they were able to learn some facts about fluoridation.

On the 13 September, 1984, a local doctor, Dr van Herel, wrote a letter to the paper showing his concern that a small number of people, the councillors, had the right to force the rest of the citizens to swallow a drug with their drinking water. He said that he was worried about at “risk groups” from “the poison fluoride” such as, diabetics, bottle-fed infants and people with kidney diseases, in his 2,850 patients living in the city. He wrote a full article but, the Health Department came back and “rebutted” the claims. Many more articles, such as, “Local GPs back fluoridation”, letters to the paper and the usual editorial, headed “Continue fluoridation”, persisted.

On 22 January, 1985, the council once again debated the issue after Dr van Herel called for fluoridation to cease. However, people attending that meeting were very angry because the doctor’s letter was not discussed and there was no progress. By this time the “Press” picked up the issue and ran an article about Imelda, in 1985, headed ”Doctors back fluoride ban”. Again the council debated the issue and on 28 January, 1985, decided to halve the level of fluoride in the Timaru water.

Halving the fluoride level caused another uproar, as it was neither one way or the other. Then in February, 1985, Imelda’s group organised an unofficial door-to-door survey, over four weeks. The Town Clerk helped frame the questions. The result was four-to-one against fluoridation. On 29 April, 1985, the council debated the issue but once again big headlines appeared in the Timaru Herald the next day saying, “Council votes for fluoride despite survey” This had caused such an interest that TV1 was at that meeting to film it.

In July 1985 Dr John Colquhoun came and addressed a small but very interested audience. The next day he was interviewed on the radio and by the local newspaper. The mayor unexpectedly announced that she had placed a proposal for a fluoridation referendum on the agenda for the Monday Council meeting. The Mayor said, amid many comments, “It is important for the future unity and wellbeing of the city that this highly controversial issue should be disposed of once and for all”.

At the meeting, immediately the issue of fluoridation came up, a councillor who had always voted for fluoridation, moved that it cease immediately and another councillor seconded the motion. The plug was pulled the next morning (23 July 1985).

When Imelda arrived home from the meeting her husband congratulated her but said, “You have won the battle but not the war”. How right he was.

Letters (some very nasty) and articles followed stating that the children’s teeth would deteriorate and called for the decision to be reversed. That went on for weeks.

The Timaru fluoride decision was raised in Parliament.

The fluoridation zealots keep at it

In 1993, a report was released by the Public Health Commission pushing to extend water fluoridation programmes and it looked as if fluoridation may become mandatory (fortunately it didn’t). Realising she couldn’t fight this on her own Imelda called for a public meeting and a group called “Fluoride Free Association” was formed.

Very strong pressure on the council to reintroduce fluoridation continued repeatedly and at times with large headlines and full coverage of the issue. In 1994 the council gave way to the pressure and agreed to hold a referendum with the following local body elections. The referendum was supposed to be “a once and for all” to settle the issue. As soon as the agreement was made known the Southern Regional Health Authority (SRHA) announced that it would fund a $42,000 local public information campaign. The then SRHA Chairman, Hugh Ross said, “In deciding to take a stand in support of fluoridation, the board has emphasised the need to provide the public with information on the pros and cons of the issue so they can make a decision based on facts. Therefore, Imelda considered her group was entitled to half the $42,000 so applied to the SRHA for the money. Naturally, they were turned down.. All this was great because while all this was going on Imelda was getting huge headlines in the paper – cheap publicity.

Public meetings were held at Temuka and Timaru, all arranged and paid for by fluoridation promoters. There were three debaters on each side. Deputy Director of Public Health, Dr Dr Gillian Durham, Otago University Dental School lecturer, Dr Robin Whyman and Timaru lawyer, Adrian More took the pro side. The Timaru group was very fortunate to have the late Dr John Colquhoun (Auckland), Dr Bruce Spittle (Dunedin) and Professor Mark Diesendorf from Australia supporting the anti side. According to a number of people in the audience, the anti-fluoridation side won these debates.

For all the money the pros spent on their vast amount of propaganda, the referendum vote was overwhelmingly against fluoridation. Of the 20,828 valid fluoridation votes cast 71 per cent were against fluoridation.

Even though the referendum was supposed to be a “once and for all” to settle the issue, within a year the pros were back into it again with big headlines in our paper about the teeth in South Canterbury going backwards, etc. But the truth of it was that the teeth improved after fluoridation ceased.


Fluoridation Zealots Continue Their Losing Streak

The issue was raised again in 1996/97/98 by health authorities, with, at times, numerous letters vigorously opposing the reintroduction of fluoridation. There were a few flare-ups in the early months of 2000 but in July that year the issue was seriously remounted when the then Health Minister, Annette King, wrote to all councils who did not have fluoride in their water to ask them to add it.

However, the Timaru Districts Council’s (TDC) policy and development committee merely received Mrs King’s letter indicating no further action would be taken. In fact, the then mayor, Wynne Raymond, said: “The political reality is that it is just not winnable and that some mayors throughout New Zealand had not even referred the letter to their council”.

This was when Martin Lee stepped into the Timaru debate. He said, “If they (the council) think it’s over, they’ve got another think coming” followed by the usual propaganda, including the comparison of the 5-year-olds in the Wellington and Canterbury study. He ended by criticising the anti-fluoridation campaigners for spreading incorrect information and said: “The anti-fluoridation people are like the George Speight of the health world. They’re hijacking the democratic process”. (talk about the pot calling te kettle black – Dr Lee has been repeatedly caught out misleading councils on fluoridation.)

Pressure continued from the poisonmongers throughout 2000 to 2002.

In 2002 dentists urged the South Canterbury Districts Health Board (SCDHB) to push for the power to fluoridate local water supplies. But the Timaru Council said that it had no plans to place the issue on the agenda.

Dr Paul Connett, then head of the Chemistry Department, St Lawrence University, New York, USA, was due to speak at a meeting on 10 June. Imelda wrote to the Ministry of Health, Director General of Health, Karen Poutassi, members of the local dental association, the South Canterbury medical officer of Health, Daniel Williams, the mayor and councillors and invited them to attend the meeting but all declined. In fact the secretary of the South Canterbury Dental Association said they had been advised by the Dental Association not to attend the meeting. Imelda’s answer to that, in that article was, “If they can’t come along and defend fluoridation, they should not be telling us to swallow it”.

On 30 December, headlines in the Timaru Herald: “Fluoridation ‘bribe’ faces Timaru veto” The article said that the Timaru District Council would receive half of the setting up cost of fluoridating its water supply under a new Government public health measure. But the mayor replied that such a move was unlikely in Timaru because of the strength of public opposition.

Imelda attended a health forum in November 2003. Health officials and members of the SCDHB were put under the spotlight regarding their position on fluoridation. Imelda asked the panel if they had bothered to read both sides of the fluoridation argument and whether they had analysed the available data. Out came all the usual propaganda, with one of them saying “I believe there comes a time when board members have to take advice from those they pay to advise them”.

There were more headlines and another great response from the public with excellent letters through to 26 December.

On 31 January, 2004, in the Mayor’s Weekly Message Mr Raymomd announced that the fluoridation issue was on the agenda at the first Council meeting in 2004. It transpired that the South Canterbury DHB had written to the Council with the usual propaganda.

It took the Timaru Council less than seven minutes to say “no”.

While all this was going on in Timaru, the Mackenzie District Council which covers districts close to Timaru, were sent a letter from the SCDHB with all the usual propaganda, including the alleged poor oral health compared to other fluoridated parts of New Zealand (one month Timaru, next month a new target, has the worst teeth – remarkable how it keeps changing), urging introduction of fluoridation. Imelda was given plenty of space to be able to have her say. All three related community boards said “no” to fluoridation.

Pro fluoridation letters appeared in newpapers through 2005 and 2006.

The first letter to the paper for 2006 was by a correspondent on the 17 May, blasting the brochure, “Smile for Life”, distributed by the SCDHB at a cost of $50,000 for South Canterbury.

26 August, 2006, headlines: “Doctor wants fluoride back”. Dr Martin Lee was at it again.

The Timaru Herald, 13 December, huge headlines: “Council cool on fluoridation”. Health bodies are asking for fluoridation to be reconsidered. Mayor, Janie Annear, said that the council did not intend to reopen the fluoride debate. She said that people voted against fluoridation in the referendum 10 years ago.

In July 2008 the SCDHB made it clear in the Timaru Herald it had no further plans to push for fluoridation in Timaru, in light of ongoing opposition and previous Council decisions. A few letters followed and the issue has not surfaced since (January 2010).

Imelda’s final comment

“All this could not have been achieved without the help and support of many people dedicated to the issue. From this battle there have been some everlasting genuine friendships formed. This campaign has taken me to many places, and has given me the privilege of meeting many professionals and researchers from all over the world. It has been a wonderful experience, and I have enjoyed knowing that such a large number of people have been helped.”