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The developer fighting fluoridation

A successful but low-key anti-fluoridation group is registered to an industrial warehouse in Christchurch. Its founder is rarely interviewed, but has had a significant influence in the alternative health movement. reports.

Charlie Mitchell

When a plucky consumer group won a legal victory over the Government last month, there was no triumphant press release, no jubilant thank you to supporters. In fact, there was no public acknowledgement at all.

It fits the modus operandi of New Health NZ, the obscure group that successfully challenged a set of fluoridation orders made by Sir Ashley Bloomfield.

The High Court ruled that the orders contained an error of law. The Ministry of Health must now negotiate with New Health – which previously described water fluoridation as “delivering a poison and neurotoxin to children’s brains via the public water supply” – on what happens next. (There is no evidence fluoride is toxic at the levels used in drinking water.)

But what is New Health? It’s a harder question to answer than one might expect.

Founded in 2005, it is registered to an industrial warehouse in Christchurch. Its website has changed little over the decades, and gives no clue as to who is behind it; the group is described as a means through which “the wishes of many thousands of New Zealanders can be made into a powerful lobbying force”.

Its founder and chairperson, Christchurch property developer Dave Sloan, is rarely interviewed, and few photographs of him exist. Historic press releases in his name list only a landline phone number that goes straight to an answering machine. Emails to multiple addresses were unreturned.

Despite its obscurity, the group has received grants totalling about $1 million, which have fed into its legal challenges. Sloan himself has been a pivotal figure within the alternative health movement for decades, involved in (successful) campaigns against proposed regulation of the sector.

It is a path that began with an obscure political sect in Christchurch, which led to political influence in Wellington – and now, success in the courts.

The Zappers

In the late 1970s, a right-wing political sect called Zenith Applied Philosophy (Zap) became a talking point in Christchurch.

“Zappers” – most in their 20s and 30s – would proselytise in Cathedral Square, selling books and pamphlets from far-right groups such as the John Birch Society.

The group’s ideology was an unusual mixture of Scientology and free-market libertarianism. Its founder, John Dalhoff, had been kicked out of Scientology in the early 1970s and he took with him some of its practices: Those included elaborate (and expensive) self-improvement courses and punishments for members said to have engaged in ethical violations.

Zap was a peculiarly Christchurch phenomenon. It never breached the city’s boundaries, even as some of its members rose to wider prominence.

Among the notable members were property developer Dave Henderson; former ACT vice-president Trevor Loudon; businessman Gerald Henry, who was once jailed in the United States for wire fraud; Geoff Russell, a company director and another ACT office-holder; and former Christchurch city councillor Robin Booth.

Another name to add: Dave Sloan. He owned and operated the Dog House Burger Bar in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, a popular hangout spot open 24 hours that was often connected to Zap.

Royalties from the Dog House had once been paid to Dalhoff, the New Zealand Times reported in a 1984 investigation. Material popular with Zap – including the infamous conspiracy tract “None Dare Call It Conspiracy” – could be read by customers.

Another restaurant managed by Sloan, Farmer John’s in Papanui Rd, was also linked to the group.

(The New Zealand Times report identified Sloan as a member of Zap and reported he had recently been “deregistered”, but “says he fully believes in their philosophy”.)

Aside from its political beliefs, some of the group’s spiritual elements were unusual. In 1974, Dalhoff claimed to have achieved the “Ultimate State”, akin to nirvana in Buddhist thought.

He started calling himself “John Ultimate”, declared his home in Clyde Rd the “centre of the universe”, and encouraged high-ranking Zappers to live nearby (property records show Sloan bought a property in the street in 1976).

Visitors to Dalhoff’s home said he would wear only a kaftan and spoke from a wicker throne, The Star reported in 1981. He had a “big electronic gadget” on his desk for “getting rid of the ions in the atmosphere”, a whistleblower told the paper.

Dalhoff became increasingly paranoid. Several members were expelled from the group on suspicion of being aliens; he claimed to have absorbed an earthquake that would have devastated Wellington.

Dalhoff died in 2001 and the group is mostly defunct.

Some of its pet issues lived on. One of them was fluoridation.

Conspiracy theories about fluoridation being a communist plot were heavily promoted by the John Birch Society, where much of Zap’s material came from.

In the early 1980s, the only part of Christchurch with fluoridated water was Waimairi, where it had been contentious.

A short-lived weekly newspaper called the Sunday Miracle embraced calls to end the practice. The newspaper had “waged a war against fluoridation in the Waimairi district”, the New Zealand Times reported.

The Sunday Miracle was published by prominent Zapper Dave Henderson, had about a dozen Zappers on its sales staff, and each issue “paid considerable attention to Zap related issues and carried strong advertising content from Zap related companies”, the New Zealand Times reported.

Fluoridation was removed from Waimairi’s water two years later, after a referendum.

A war on the regulator

After his youthful dalliance with Zap, Sloan became a prominent – but publicity-shy – property developer in Christchurch.

His portfolio is lucrative. Property records show that Sloan – either personally or through trusts of which he is a director – owns more than two dozen properties.

One of them is the Ferrymead retail centre, where tenants include Mitre 10 and a supermarket. He also owns several residential properties, including a Burnside mansion with a tennis court, indoor pool and sauna.

Separate to his success as a developer, much of Sloan’s energy has been devoted to advancing his health views. In 2002, he founded the New Zealand Health Trust (NZHT), a charitable group that has fought the regulation of natural health products.

Although Sloan was the group’s founder and chairperson, its public face was Christchurch lawyer Amy Adams - later the MP for Selwyn and justice minister (she left the group before becoming an MP in 2008).

In the mid-2000s, the NZHT fought attempts to form a trans-Tasman regulator for the industry. “It must now be clear to all that this agency would strike a major blow to health options and choices as well as undermining our very system of democracy,” Sloan wrote in a newsletter to supporters in June 2006. “It simply cannot be allowed to proceed.”

As part of its campaign, the NZHT held public meetings, started a letter-writing campaign, and organised public protests. It even sold DVDs of a presentation hosted by Adams detailing the group’s opposition to the regulator.

One of the campaign’s targets was NZ First leader Winston Peters. His party’s votes were required for the law to pass, and he had expressed support for the regulator.

At a 2006 protest outside Parliament organised by the NZHT, Peters addressed a jeering crowd, angrily denying he had reneged on earlier promises to oppose the legislation. Adams tried to grab the microphone from Peters and later said he had “lost the plot”.

Opponents were, eventually, successful. The regulator was shelved in 2007.

Sloan and the NZHT weren’t ready to claim victory. They “engaged in a lengthy process of consultation with the natural and traditional health products industry in order to coordinate a joint industry position as to how the industry should be regulated”, Sloan later wrote.

After an “enormous amount of time, effort and cost”, the plan was in 2009 presented to the National government.

It was rejected. Instead, the government proposed a law similar to the one Labour had shelved but which would apply only to certain natural health products, including supplements, echinacea and fish oils.

Once again, the NZHT lurched into action. It commissioned expensive economic and regulatory reports and co-ordinated public submissions against the proposal. Alongside the email addresses of every MP, the group shared a form letter calling it a “loopy law” and “nanny-state legislation” that would impose significant compliance costs on the industry.

Again, the effort to regulate the sector failed. The bill languished at the bottom of Parliament’s agenda and did not pass before the 2017 election.

By then, the political winds had changed. Peters, now deputy prime minister, opposed efforts to regulate the industry and had called the bill “an embarrassment”. It was not passed in that term, either.

Sloan, who had been a Peters critic a decade earlier, appeared to have had a change of heart.

Years earlier, two men set up the NZ First Foundation, which the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) alleged was accepting undeclared political donations for the party.

Among those donors was Sloan, who paid $5000 into the foundation’s account in 2018. “I wanted to lobby Parliament as I was against the Natural Health Bill,” Sloan told the SFO during its inquiry into the foundation, Newsroom reported.

(The two men were acquitted of charges relating to the foundation. Peters maintained he and the party had no knowledge of the foundation’s activities.)

‘Poison’ in the water

To anyone watching closely, it would have seemed apparent that the group had wider interests.

A since-removed entry on its website promoted a 2012 video about chemtrails, and numerous other posts claimed links between vaccines and autism, and between drinking water fluoridation and lower IQ levels.

The latter cause was embraced by Sloan’s New Health NZ – a group continuing in the spirit of NZHT with a focus on representing “consumers”.

Among its founding members were prominent figures in the alternative health world, including supplement retailer Patrick Fahy, currently chairperson of lobby group the Natural Health Alliance (NHA).

Like Sloan, Fahy donated to the NZ First Foundation. The NHAvocally supported the party during the recent election, including with paid ads in major newspapers. (One ad listed reasons to vote for NZ First: No 1 was its policy to repeal regulations of natural health products passed earlier this year.)

Despite a wide brief, New Health’s primary focus has been opposing drinking water fluoridation.

Financial documents show it started receiving grants from unidentified donors in 2009, which were mostly fed into expenses for its legal actions.

At the same time, two charitable healthfocused trusts for which Sloan is a trustee were awarding millions of dollars in grants (one received a $3.8m advance from another trust of which Sloan is the sole director). It is unclear if any of those grants went to New Health.

In 2013, the group filed a major legal challenge against the tiny South Taranaki District Council, which had fluoridated some of its drinking water supplies.

Leading the action for New Health was Lisa Hansen, a former Crown lawyer and recently the Gambling Commissioner. She has served as a lawyer forVoices for Freedom, and on behalf of a group of dissident doctors alleged “the possible existence of nano-technology” in Covid-19 vaccines.

The litigation was expensive. It lasted five years and went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of the council.

Although it lost the case, the group continued to lobby against fluoridation.

“If Parliament is serious about delivering a poison and neurotoxin to children’s brains via the public drinking water supply ... and mandating a practice that reduces children’s IQ and permanently impairs their wellbeing and quality of life, then it should pass this bill,” Hansen wrote to the health select committee on behalf of New Health in 2021.

She was referring to a bill that would move fluoridation powers from councils to the director-general of health. It passed.

When Bloomfield used those powers for the first time, a familiar group and its quiet backer were there to fight back.

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