Health Ministry to endorse dental-health campaign

Initiative to be privately funded for lack of health promotion budget.

June 10, 2013 22:13
3 minute read.

Teeth. (photo credit: Teeth)

The Health Ministry intends to send two senior officials to a press conference next week that will launch a month-long, NIS 2 million campaign to encourage proper oral hygiene.

The campaign, which officially enjoys “the encouragement of the Health Ministry,” is being sponsored by the Oral-B dental-products company and by the for-profit Smile dental subsidiary of Clalit Health Services.

Oral-B and Smile approached Yair Amikam, the ministry’s deputy director-general for information, and Dr. Shlomo Zusman, director of the dental health department, for approval of the “dental health messages.”

The campaign will appear via media and educational channels.

Amikam and Zusman will be non-speaking guests at the press conference, which is set to take place at the Beit Sokolov journalists’ center in Tel Aviv on Sunday morning.

The ministry’s deputy spokeswoman said that Amikam and Zusman approved the educational messages in the campaign, adding that despite the fact that the ministry’s symbol will appear on the campaign’s educational material, it did not spend funds or receive any money for its involvement. They did not say if they endorsed the campaign in its entirety.

The two companies initiated the campaign “in the wake of serious findings about the dental health in Israel, especially of children and teens,” Amikam said. The campaign, he continued, will encourage “preventive activity and education for dental and oral hygiene... The campaign will not be run under the auspices of the ministry or with any other type of cooperation, and this [statement] will appear on all the campaign material.”

Amikam concluded that the ministry’s “financial distress is well-known” and is the reason why it cannot finance such campaigns itself. The Health Ministry – with one of the highest budgets of any civilian ministry – has allocated an annual budget of NIS 2.8m. for promoting better public health.

The ministry was recently criticized in a Knesset committee by Amos Hausner, chairman of the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking, for having misplaced priorities and for not sponsoring public service announcements discouraging unhealthy behavior.

The spokeswoman said there was no connection between the decision six weeks ago by Health Minister Yael German to halt mandatory fluoridation of the country’s drinking water – a move roundly criticized by public health experts – and the companies’ campaign to promote dental health.

“The campaign was planned by the companies long before the decision,” the spokeswoman said.

After German’s decision, ministry director-general Prof. Ronni Gamzu said that he would have to come up with other ways to get poorer children to brush their teeth with fluoride toothpaste or take fluoride drops.

The spokeswoman noted that the ministry has no policy of seeking out private money for health campaigns due to its own meager budget for the purpose.

Nine years ago, the Health and Education Ministries allowed the Unilever corporation to finance a “unique” educational program in the schools aimed at reducing child obesity and promoting hygiene.

The directors-general of the two highest-spending civilian ministries held a rare joint press conference at the Education Ministry’s Jerusalem headquarters to describe the successes of their Tafur Alai (Suited to Me) educational program launched two years before. They shared the stage with the senior marketing official of Unilever Israel – the local branch of the $50b. consortium, which donated NIS 2.5m. to the program.

Among Unilever’s local companies are companies that produce pretzels, cornflakes, salty and sweet snacks, margarine, ice cream and powdered soup – none of which are recommended as part of a healthy diet.

The program included computer software and a looseleaf binder full of ideas for lessons and games; among the foods presented on game cards titled “Foods That Are Tasty to Me” were generic pretzels, an ice cream cone, margarine and cornflakes.

Asked in 2009 to comment about the campaign, Prof. Elliot Berry – then-dean of the Hebrew University- Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and an expert in nutrition – said that “Teaching children healthful lifestyles – getting exercise, eating fruits and vegetables rather than processed foods and not smoking – should be a national policy of the two ministries and not left to a food company, however noble its motives.

“If the ministries’ priorities were right,” Berry said, “public health would get significant state funding.

This matter is symptomatic of the third-rate status that health promotion has been given over the years by the educational and health establishment.”

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