DID you know that nearly 60% of Scots children have tooth decay by the time they are five?
By the time they reach their teens, the proportion with rotten teeth is 70%. It is shocking.
It is with these statistics in mind that the government’s proposal to add fluoride to the water supply in Scotland – currently out to consultation – has to be judged.
There’s no doubt this is one of the most controversial decisions the Scottish Executive will make over the next few months.
I get sackloads of letters about it – and the overwhelming majority are from people passionately opposed to what they think would be mass medication of the population.
But with one of the worst dental health records in Europe, can we afford to dismiss a measure that most dentists appear to support?
Well, no is the short answer, if – and it’s a big ”if” — we are convinced it’ll make a difference and that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
That’s why I decided to look closely at the evidence before reaching any conclusions. Having done so, I am far from convinced that putting fluoride in water is the right thing to do.
Some will point to the experience of places that have already gone down the fluoride road and argue that it has brought improvements in dental health.
But much of that ”evidence” is anecdotal.
There has only ever been one properly conducted scientific study carried out in this country.
The York report was published in 2000 and its conclusions are hardly emphatic.
It was able to say only that fluoride probably reduces dental disease – but by much less than was previously thought.
It also pointed to increased risk of dental fluorosis – discolouring of teeth – as a result of fluoridated water.
And, more importantly, it said that more research was needed to assess whether it posed any other risks to our health.
In my view, the evidence of benefits outweighing risks would have to be a lot stronger to justify a measure that essentially forces people to consume fluoride.
But the more I’ve looked into this issue, the more I’ve begun to feel uneasy for another reason.
Even if the evidence that putting fluoride in water improved our teeth was much stronger, I can’t help feeling that it would be a cop-out.
It tries to treat the symptoms of bad dental health. It doesn’t get to grips with the causes.
There is no mystery over our bad dental health. It’s down to our diet. If we want to improve children’s teeth – and we all surely do – wouldn’t it be better to take steps to encourage them to consume fewer sweets and fizzy drinks?
The move to improve the nutritional value of school meals is a start. We should also give every child free fruit in schools.
And stop the mixed messages. Get rid of vending machines selling coke and chocolate in schools.
Measures like these won’t work miracles overnight, but I believe they will make more of a difference in the long run than putting chemicals in the water supply.