Fluoride is in the air in Pinellas County, even if it's no longer being added to the drinking water.
The cavity-fighting mineral has a starring role in the campaigns of two Democrats seeking to oust Republican incumbents from their county commission seats. Both candidates want to turn the election into a referendum on the commission's 4-3 vote last year to end fluoridation, a practice backed by federal health officials who say it has helped reduce tooth decay by 25 percent nationwide.
Some 700,000 people — 75 percent of the county — were affected by the vote. The Democrats are betting that many of them, including a large number of local dentists, will take their displeasure to the polls on Nov. 6.
Former state Rep. Janet Long and former state Sen. Charlie Justice mention fluoride in their campaign speeches so often that it can seem as if molars are a target demographic, like elderly or minority voters.
Fluoride is the only issue listed on Long's campaign website. And her slogan, "Common Sense," is a finger-wagging rebuke of the board's vote to stop adding the substance to the water supply.
Long's opponent, Republican Commissioner Neil Brickfield, voted to end fluoridation on the grounds that residents are getting the mineral through their toothpaste, food and visits to the dentist, and it was not the county's job to provide more. Justice's target, Commissioner Nancy Bostock, also voted to end the practice.
"It was a terribly irresponsible thing to do," Long said of the vote. "It's a small window, in my opinion, into the general decision-making process that these two people that Charlie and I are running against use."
Justice also holds up the fluoride vote as a symbol of dysfunction and a sign the board has swung too far to the right. He has called it a "backwoods" decision and, at a recent meeting of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, promised to restore fluoridation on his first day in office.
Todd Pressman, a Republican political consultant who is helping raise money for Brickfield and Bostock, said he thinks the pro-fluoridation strategy is, essentially, toothless.
Pinellas County has a projected budget shortfall of roughly $25 million next year, which will only worsen if property values continue to fall. Its Emergency Medical Services system is hemorrhaging money and its storm water system is antiquated. Ending fluoridation was initially proposed as a cost-saving measure. It cost the county $205,000 a year.
Fluoride is controversial, but "it's not an acid test," Pressman said. "I think voters are paying 10 times more attention to if their taxes are going up."
"Even among the people who will look me in the eye and say, 'I think you made the wrong vote,' a good portion of them will say, 'But I like your stand on the other issues,' " Bostock said.
And with so many louder, more heated elections — the fight for a St. Petersburg state Senate seat between Jim Frishe and Jeff Brandes, for example — Pressman thinks fluoride will be drowned out.
But Justice said he has been surprised by the number of people eager to talk about the fluoride vote. A poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9 surveyed 508 adults in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties last year and found that 57 percent supported adding fluoride to drinking water. In Pinellas that number was higher, with 63 percent in favor.
"It's incredibly significant," Justice said. "If you ask people: 'Do you care if there's fluoride in the water?' Most people will shrug. But when you tell them the commission voted to take it out, it's this visceral reaction of 'Oh my gosh. I can't believe they did that.' "
Brickfield and Bostock are keeping fluoride out of their campaign material and stump speeches.
A tireless campaigner, Brickfield estimated that, of the hundreds of voters he personally meets each week, only five bring up fluoride, and four of those thank him for voting against it. When the occasional person does object, he recommends the person watch the video of the board's 3-hour and 20-minute discussion on Oct. 4 when the vote took place.
"I bring up the things that people talk about and want to know about most, which is jobs, cutting spending, and keeping our taxes low," he said.
Although the candidates disagree over the importance of fluoride as a make-or-break issue for voters, no one disputes where dentists stand. Many of them are angry, particularly the more than a dozen who attended the board meeting where the vote took place.
By the end of June, 23 of the 200-plus people who had donated to Long's campaign identified themselves as working in dentistry. Justice said a group of Pinellas dentists threw a fundraiser for him and have been handing out his flyers to patients, along with freebie toothpaste and toothbrushes.
Ed Hopwood has a private practice in Clearwater, where his patients drink and bathe in county water and have been affected by the fluoride decision. He recently wrote a check to Long's campaign, something he said he had never done for any politician.
"I'm a lifelong Republican," he said. "But this is not a political issue. This is an extreme radical group opposing mainstream science."
The county's dentists presented a unified front in trying to persuade the board to keep the decay-preventing policy in place, but it is unclear whether they will be able to morph into a political organization. For now, there are no eye-catching campaign signs about fluoride on the county's roadways and no TV spots publicizing their position. That could change as the Nov. 6 general election nears.
In the meantime, Pinellas County residents are still ingesting small amounts of fluoride, which occurs naturally in the county's water. The bitter debate over whether to add more to bay area water supplies has spanned decades. St. Petersburg began adding fluoride in 1955, but protests brought an end to the policy two years later. Voters quashed the idea twice more in referendums until the City Council approved it in 1990. Hillsborough County and Tampa also add fluoride to their water, but large swathes of Pasco and Hernando counties either do not have access to fluoridated water or have opted out.
Pinellas began adding fluoride in 2004, bringing the level to .8 milligrams per liter, on the low end of the range recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before then, it was the largest water supplier in the eastern United States without fluoridation.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected].