It's wrong to back-track on fluoridation, whatever the rights lobby says

Poor Yvette Cooper. She spends years climbing the greasy political pole and finally makes the front pages of the newspapers - as minister for virginity. Of course, it is commendable that the government is tackling Britain's appalling teenage pregnancy problem.

And it is reassuring that it is starting from the idea that low self-esteem, rather than low morals, is part of the problem.

But it is hard not to laugh at the sight of Ms Cooper preaching the virtues of abstinence - and most commentators didn't try too hard.

Meanwhile, if ministers are really looking for a cause that will take forward their public health and inequalities agenda, they have one to hand: fluoride.

When Frank Dobson asked the NHS Centre for Reviews and Dissemination to look at the evidence, he gave the impression that action would follow as soon as the review had strengthened his hand by proving that fluoridating tap water was beneficial.

But now the review is out, Lord Hunt is saying more research is needed.

This is a transparent attempt to kick the issue into touch. The benefits of fluoridating water have been proved time and again to the satisfaction of everybody except extremists such as the National Pure Water Association - which believes it is an industry plot to dispose of toxic waste - the Green party and sections of the 'rights' lobby.

The civil liberties argument about 'mass medication' needs to to be taken seriously - especially if the taint of the affluent, governing classes telling the poor what is good for them is to be avoided.

Ms Cooper's message that it is all right for teenage girls to remain virgins prompts the Conservative cannabis question - did you? And if not, why should you tell the less wealthy or less educationally-advantaged how to behave?

However, the answer to the rights argument is public debate about the benefits of fluoridation and genuine local participation in advance of any decision to introduce it locally. If the debate is won, it is nonsense to claim the rights of the losing side are infringed any more than when laws change in response to other open debates - and for wider public benefits.

The benefits of fluoride are clear. The government should implement its white paper promise to legislate to force water companies to fluoridate supplies after local support has been demonstrated.