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5. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): If he will make a statement on the extent to which the requirements on the NHS to deal with the effects of drug addiction and abuse are increasing or decreasing. 
The Minister for Public Health (Ms Tessa Jowell): A key objective of the Government's drugs strategy, "Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain", is to increase the participation of problem drug misusers in drug treatment programmes. The number of users starting drug treatment in all agencies, including the national health service, has increased from 17,684 in the six months ending March 1994 to 23,916 in the six months ending March 1998.
Sir Teddy Taylor: In the light of that serious information, do the Government accept that hepatitis C, which stems from needle abuse, is reaching epidemic proportions in some parts of the country? Is the Minister willing to look into the matter and consider whether sufficient resources and attention are being given to this serious and worsening problem?
Ms Jowell: I certainly take the hon. Gentleman's point about the risks posed by hepatitis C, from which drug users are particularly at risk. We are considering how to reduce its prevalence among those who persistently misuse drugs.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Is it not a disgrace that Opposition Front Benchers should deliberately encourage the use of a drug that kills 1,000 times more people every year than heroin? I refer to the deadly, addictive drug tobacco. The official Opposition are complaining and asking for the price of tobacco to be reduced, even though there is irrefutable evidence that every time the price is increased, its use declines. Will my right hon. Friend condemn the official Opposition for that blatant attempt at drug pushing?
Ms Jowell: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that this is another example of the Opposition in disarray, which is a daily occurrence. An Opposition Member has today criticised the Government's stance on raising tobacco taxation, whereas the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), a former Secretary of State for Health, claimed that tobacco taxation is crucial in reducing deaths caused by smoking. We have double-speak from the Opposition, and once again we have Tory disarray.
The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson): Children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and people on low incomes have always been eligible for free dental checks and sight tests. From 1 April, we restored free NHS sight tests to everyone aged 60 and
Mr. Burstow: Although we welcome the extension mentioned by the Secretary of State, does he accept that many of us who believe in preventive health care are disappointed that the Government have not recognised the need to transfer more resources into prevention, which will save more money in the long run? More specifically, on dental care--another area in which we would like an extension of check-ups--my local health authority has seen seven out of 10 of its dentists registering increases in waiting lists. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is a further sign that the health service is under pressure and that resources are not going where they are needed? Resources are going not into prevention but into cure, which would not be needed if adequate funds were provided to detect problems and treat them early.
Mr. Dobson: It is certainly the case that this Government intend to put more and more resources into the prevention of ill-health, and we will continue to do so. However, it is our judgment, at least for the time being, that the gains to be achieved by restoring free dental checks are not as great as those that will be achieved by restoring free sight tests to everyone aged 60 and over. Priorities have to be balanced against other uses that could be made of the money, and we believe that at the moment there are better uses.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's comments about the reintroduction of free eye tests for the elderly. Does he agree that we inherited an NHS dental service in rapid decline following 18 years of Conservative Government? Many of my constituents are unable to get an NHS dental service. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it should be a priority for this Government to ensure that we again have an NHS dental service for all of our people?
Mr. Dobson: It is certainly the case that the policies of the previous Government effectively privatised NHS dental care in many parts of the country. We are taking steps to reverse that. More than 600,000 more people visited NHS dentists last year than in the previous year. We want to build on that progress, but it will take time, because we cannot force dentists out of their private practices into the NHS.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): We do not ever expect the Government to do much that they promised before the election, least of all in looking after people's eyes and teeth within the NHS. Will they do one thing for eyes that needs doing and that we would support? So far, the Government have done nothing to prepare people for the dangers of August's solar eclipse. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that he will implement a programme to inform people in schools and elsewhere about how to look after their eyes when they are tempted to stare at the sun? What are the Government's plans?
Mr. Dobson: Measures will be taken, as they have been taken in the past, to warn people of the dangers of staring into the sun during an eclipse. The way things are going it will be the eclipse of the Tory party.
The Minister for Public Health (Ms Tessa Jowell): Because of the clear link between deprivation and tooth decay, we have funded health authorities in areas with some of the highest levels of dental decay to distribute toothbrushes and fluoride toothpaste to children in schools in the most deprived parts of those areas. From 1 April 1998, in addition to the general uplift in the fees that dentists receive, we increased capitation payments for children under six in deprived areas by an additional 25 per cent. We have also commissioned the Health Education Authority to produce further leaflets and information for parents and carers of very young children to complement the advice and guidance available from health visitors. We have also arranged for the translation into Asian languages, of leaflets about caring for very young children's teeth because some children in Asian communities are especially vulnerable to tooth decay.
Ms Blears: I thank my right hon. Friend for that extensive reply. Is she aware of our innovative project in Salford, where we have just launched a mobile dental surgery, funded in part by the Humphrey Booth charity and run by the general dental service? The mobile surgery goes to primary schools--so the children have no escape from the dentist--and is proving to be surprisingly popular. It also provides a drop-in centre for dental services for young homeless people. That project was funded under the Government's investing in dentistry strategy. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that other, similarly innovative projects will be supported in our poorest communities?
Ms Jowell: The answer is yes. The project described by my hon. Friend is extremely worthwhile. It goes some way towards explaining why the dental health of Salford's five-year-olds has improved so much since 1995. I congratulate all those involved with that excellent initiative, which we shall examine to see whether it can be applied in other parts of the country to tackle the tooth decay experienced by very young children in some of our most deprived areas.
Mr. Robathan: Some constituents have written to me to express their great anxiety about that. I share that anxiety, and have sought advice on the matter. Although I have come across some evidence and opinion that mass fluoridation is useful, other evidence suggests that it may have long-term adverse affects on the human skeleton. Will the Minister reassure the House that, before this poison is artificially introduced into the water supply, it will have been established beyond doubt that there will be absolutely no long-term harmful effects on people who, like those in the west midlands, are forced to drink fluoridated water?