LONDON — Anyone who’s seen an Austin Powers movie knows the stereotype about the English: They have bad teeth.
Health Secretary Alan Johnson said it’s time to improve England’s dental health and urged putting fluoride in local drinking water to help reduce tooth decay in children, especially in poor areas.
Only about 10% of England’s population has fluoridated water. There is little to none in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“Fluoridation is scientifically supported, it is legal and it is our policy — but only two or three areas currently have it,” Johnson said last week. “We need to go much further in areas where dental health needs to be improved.”
His recommendation has set off another round in a long-standing battle here that is every bit as contentious as the one in the USA during the Cold War, when putting fluoride in the water was sometimes considered a communist plot to poison Americans.
Today, two-thirds of the U.S. population and 43 of the 50 biggest U.S. cities have fluoride in their public drinking water, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
“Fluoridation of the water supply here is quite provocative,” acknowledged Carmel McHenry of the British Dental Association, which supports Johnson’s proposal. “It really gets the anti-fluoride lobby going.”
One opponent is John Graham, an executive member of the National Pure Water Association, which prides itself on helping keep fluoride out of England’s water since 1960. “It’s a fundamental human rights question,” Graham said. “It’s medication without individual consent.”
If the English want fluoride, he said, they can use fluoride toothpaste or get fluoride treatments from their dentists. Graham said the government shouldn’t spend about $80 million over the next three years to help pay for fluoride in tap water as Johnson proposes. Graham said fluoride is of questionable benefit, and some studies indicate it can pit teeth and make bones brittle.
The Department of Health here insists that the benefits are far greater than any potential problems. The department points to studies that indicate the number of children with tooth decay decreases 15% when their water is fluoridated. Children in Birmingham, which has had fluoridated water for 40 years, have half the tooth decay of children in Manchester, which doesn’t.
McHenry of the British Dental Association said many Americans might find the fluoride battle here surprising because they see Britain as more of a “nanny state” when it comes to public health, and fluoride is widely added in the water in the USA.
As for the U.S. stereotype of English teeth? McHenry said that despite ongoing problems with childhood tooth decay, British smiles are better than ever as a result of more widespread dental care, better diets and increased knowledge about oral health.