FLUORIDE will be added to large parts of Scotland’s water supply as part of a controversial compromise plan by the Scottish executive to mass medicate children.
Labour ministers, who have faced widespread opposition to blanket fluoridation, will instead give health boards the power to order Scottish Water to add the chemical to supplies following public consultation.
The decision to allow the widespread use of fluoride -which has been shown to prevent tooth decay -follows figures released last week showing that 55% of five-year-olds in Scotland have rotten teeth.
However, the move, due to be announced this autumn, will face criticism from health campaigners who claim the chemical can cause tooth mottling and brittle bone diseases.
The “postcode” fluoridation strategy, which would bring Scotland’s dental policy in line with a recent policy shift in England, is being driven by Tom McCabe, the deputy health minister.
As well as offering the potential to improve public health, sources close to him say it could avoid a damaging coalition split between Labour and the Lib Dems, who oppose fluoridation.
Under the plan, children in deprived Labour heartland areas, such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, could be given fluoride to protect their teeth, while people in more prosperous Lib Dem areas could reject use of the chemical.
Health groups claim that compulsory fluoridation is the best way to improve Scotland’s dismal dental health record, which ranks among the worst in Europe.
They support radical action to deal with high levels of decay among children who consume sugary drinks and neglect to brush their teeth.
However, the executive is likely to face stiff resistance from the public. An executive consultation paper, published in 2002, which floated the option of adding fluoride to all Scottish water supplies, attracted more than 7,500 complaints from Scots. It was the biggest backlash since the section 28 debate over the promotion of homosexuality in schools.
Last night opposition politicians warned against McCabe’s compromise, and voiced doubts about how meaningful local consultation would be.
Shona Robison, the SNP’s health spokeswoman, condemned ministers for passing the buck and accused them of removing parental choice.
“This is about avoiding having to take responsibility for decisions. There needs to be clarity about what consultation means,” she said. “Does it mean a referendum or is it consultation in the style of health boards, which will leave people more than a little concerned given their track record on hospital closures.”
Robison said regular dental checks were vital to stop the spread of decay and gum disease and that, with the number of dentists in Scotland declining, the executive must look at ways to ensure more people enter the profession.
Banning the advertising of unhealthy sweets to children and removing fizzy drinks from school vending machines could also help, she said.
Other options include handing out more free toothpaste and toothbrushes to schoolchildren and initiating a dental hygiene campaign in all schools.
Ministers are also understood to be exploring whether fluoride should be added to milk given to young children in schools and nurseries.