Labour has vowed to make water fluoridation a priority if it wins back power at next year’s general election, telling Dentistry: ‘We need to be bolder.’
In an exclusive interview with Dentistry magazine, the party’s health spokesman pledged to try to persuade local health chiefs to finally ‘grasp the nettle’ on the controversy.
Andy Burnham said: ‘It’s one of the simplest and easiest ways to improve the health of children, as well as improving their self-confidence and self-esteem.
‘There is clearly no public health argument against it, not a shred of evidence that it damages health.
‘If there was, there would be campaigns about it in the West Midlands.
‘We need to be bolder on public health – and, to my mind, that includes water fluoridation.’
The comments come after the only proposed water fluoridation scheme anywhere in England – in south Hampshire – collapsed after fierce local opposition.
Public Health England (PHE) pulled the plug despite its firm belief in the benefits of water fluoridation, because of the lack of support from Southampton City Council.
The scheme was proposed as long ago as 2009 – to add fluoride to tap water for about 200,000 people in the city and wider south Hampshire – but was never implemented.
The decision was seen as crushing hopes of extending water fluoridation because – with the axing of strategic health authorities – decisions now rest with local councils, directly answerable to suspicious voters.
But Mr Burnham said he did not share that pessimism, arguing other areas with worse problems of rotting children’s teeth were more likely to act than Southampton.
He identified Greater Manchester as the most likely, pointing out north west hospitals carry out seven times more tooth extractions on children, under general anaesthetic, than in the fluoridated West Midlands.
Mr Burnham said: ‘I believe they had a strong case in Southampton, but the geography of that area made it difficult.
‘There aren’t the same health problems in Hampshire.
‘I hope Greater Manchester will now pick up the cudgels.
‘And we may find it’s more likely now, because councils have more experience of bringing forward an argument and winning it.
‘I don’t see the change as a negative step, because the health service didn’t go for it.
‘And Greater Manchester can use the West Midlands as a comparator.’
Mr Burnham said he had ‘always been a believer’ in water fluoridation, having led the 2003 campaign to change the law to take decisions out of the hands of the privatised water companies.
He said he would not put direct pressure on councils – which had responsibility for public health – but he would encourage them to ‘grasp the nettle’.
There was a ‘small civil liberties argument’, but, Mr Burnham added: ‘For me, that is offset massively by the benefits for children.
‘If kids have very bad teeth, it damages their confidence.
‘They can feel self-conscious – and some just don’t have the same support from parents, when it comes to brushing teeth.’