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Published Monday, March 8, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

Fluoride brushoff to stick

Santa Cruz: With no money available for state program, proponents' efforts decay.
    -- By John Woolfolk, Mercury News Staff Writer

State officials have no plans to challenge Santa Cruz's defiance last week of California's water fluoridation mandate aimed at fighting tooth decay.

With no money available to fluoridate Santa Cruz, the issue is in limbo, said Donald Lyman, chief of chronic disease and injury control for the state Department of Health Services.

``The bottom line I guess is that there are no plans for Santa Cruz at all,'' Lyman said.

Santa Cruz voters narrowly approved Measure N on the March 2 ballot, banning fluoride from the municipal water supply. The measure, with 50.4 percent in favor, was the first to defy a 1995 state law requiring most public water systems to fluoridate when funding is provided.

State health officials maintain that California statute supersedes local ordinances and have vowed to fluoridate Santa Cruz regardless of the measure.

But the state fluoridation law provided no funding, and without money to fluoridate Santa Cruz, state officials have no authority to press a case against the city in court, Lyman said.

``At the moment, I've got nothing in the bank to trip the state enforcement mechanism and require fluoridation in Santa Cruz,'' Lyman said.

How soon money might be provided to fluoridate Santa Cruz is anybody's guess.

The first funding since the law's passage was a $10 million grant by the California Endowment announced in January, of which $7 million has been awarded so far. It is expected to cost $200 million to fluoridate the 167 communities affected by the law.

When the law was adopted, affected communities were ranked for receipt of funds based upon the efficiency of fluoridating them. Santa Cruz was ranked 12th because its single treatment plant makes it highly efficient.

But the list is not binding on private donors -- such as the California Endowment -- which are expected to provide most of the fluoridation funding, Lyman said. Private groups can set their own criteria in making grants, he said.

The California Endowment was established in 1996 to expand access to affordable health care.

Which communities receive fluoride funding is decided by the Fluoridation 2000 Workgroup, of which Lyman is chairman. The group also includes representatives of the California Dental Association, the Dental Health Foundation and the Fluoridation Task Force.

Santa Cruz is not being considered for the grant money, Lyman said. The city's anti-fluoridation measure, he added, will not affect its ranking for funding.

The Santa Cruz vote, however, poses a dilemma for the state. Backing off Santa Cruz now could make the state seem weak-willed. Such timidity could fuel anti-fluoride activists and encourage other towns ambivalent about fluoride to follow Santa Cruz's lead.

But state officials are reluctant to force fluoride on an unwilling community, especially when many others -- Mountain View, Sacramento and Los Angeles among them -- are clamoring for it.

``In the big picture, there are many regions anxious to see fluoridation in place,'' said state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, who wrote the fluoridation law as an assemblywoman.

``For every Santa Cruz, there are other jurisdictions overwhelmingly expressing their support,'' Speier said. ``Resources are presently limited, so we'll move forward in those places where there is great interest.''

Will the state still try to fluoridate Santa Cruz?

``Time will give us the answer,'' Speier said.

©1999 Mercury Center.