THERE can be no question that Scotland has one of the worst dental health records in Europe; such is the national predilection for sweets and fizzy drinks that children’s teeth are often ruined before they even reach primary school.

Over a quarter of a million teeth are extracted from children every year in Scotland and 60 per cent suffer from dental disease by the age of three.

It is an appalling record and it is easy to see why the argument for fluoridation of the water supply is an attractive one.

The experience in those parts of England where fluoridation has been introduced shows that children’s dental disease has halved. Today the Scottish Executive launches a public consultation on the question of fluoridation. But the picture is not as straightforward as it might seem.

In high enough doses fluoride is a potentially toxic chemical, and there is a growing amount of scientific evidence that fluoridation could have harmful side-effects.

Studies suggest it is linked to bone cancer, to brittle bones and even Alzheimer’s disease; it has also been proven that too much fluoride causes an unsightly “mottling” of teeth.

Ultimately this argument boils down to choice – parents should have the right to choose whether their children receive fluoride, and not literally have it rammed down their throats.

If they do choose it, a range of products are available containing fluoride, such as toothpastes, tablets and drops.

And there are other ways that the Executive could make a significant impact on dental disease. Improved education of children and their parents about the harm that a diet high in sugar and poor oral hygiene can cause would be a start.

Improved access to dentists on the NHS and investment in dental health services would help; if the cost of treatment puts adults off going, they are less likely to take their children for routine check-ups.

Pilot schemes in Glasgow and Dundee where children have been given free toothbrushes and toothpaste have proved as successful as fluoridation.

These are all practical measures which would protect everyone’s oral health – and their fundamental right to choose their treatment.