Mr Johnson said that a lot of ‘nonsense’ was talked about the fluoridation process, which health bosses at South Central Strategic Health Authority (SHA) will decide whether to implement in the Southampton area later this month (26 February) following a public consultation.
He said there was ‘no evidence’ – from Birmingham and parts of the US that had fluoridated their water supplies – that adding fluoride had caused health problems.
The minister pointed to the contrast between Birmingham, which added fluoride to its water decades ago and where children enjoy relatively good oral health, and Manchester, which had not and where many children suffered from tooth decay.
He said: ‘There’s a big issue of health inequalities here. If you look at Birmingham, which has had fluoridated water since the 1960s, their social problems are exactly the same as inner city Manchester, for instance. The health of those children’s teeth [in Birmingham] is just remarkable. Someone very effectively once said that fluoride gives poor kids rich kids’ teeth.
Mr Johnson, addressing the Westminster press gallery, added on a more personal note: ‘My own experience is with my children who I gave, when they were very small, fluoride tablets. None of them have had a filling or a problem with their teeth.’
The minister insisted the decision in south Hampshire would be a matter for local health bosses, but admitted that a rejection by the region would be a ‘blow’ to his hopes to increase the prevalence of fluoridated water across the country.
He said: ‘It’s right that the SHA should be leading, it’s right that there should be a public consultation. I hope that the public consultation leads to Southampton being ready to go forward.
‘Manchester is close to doing the same thing, Yorkshire and Humber is close to doing the same thing.’
He added: ‘The reason why Parliamentarians put this in the hands of health authorities rather than utility companies is that it is a big health issue.’
If the fluoridation plans are approved by the SHA’s board, at a special meeting on Thursday 26 February, the amount of fluoride in the water would be increased from 0.08 parts per million to one part per million – the level that is considered to offer the best impact in reducing tooth decay – by 2010 at the earliest.
The scheme would affect 160,000 people in Southampton and 35,000 in other parts of south west Hampshire, including Totton, Netley and Eastleigh.
It was initially proposed for south Hampshire by Southampton City Primary Care Trust, which insists the scheme is a safe and effective method of reducing ‘unacceptable’ levels of dental decay in the city, and has since received the backing of Hampshire Primary Care Trust and Southampton City Council.
The forces ranged against the proposals include the vocal campaign group Hampshire Against Fluoridation, Hampshire County Council and local Liberal Democrat MPs Sandra Gidley (Romsey) and Chris Huhne (Eastleigh).