Health Secretary Alan Johnson has called for fluoride to be added to England's water supplies as a key means of tackling tooth decay.
He wants strategic health authorities (SHAs), which are already able to compel water companies to add the chemical, to use those powers.
Critics argue the long term health risks of fluoridation are unknown.
But advocates, including much of the medical profession, say it is a safe, proven way of improving dental health. Mr Johnson said he wanted public debate at a local level before any such measures are carried out.
"I don't want this to be carried out in areas where there has been no consultation whatsoever," he told the BBC. "But every time the public hear the arguments they overwhelmingly go for fluoridisation - the problem is the debate has stopped."
At present, about 10% of England's water is fluoridated - mainly in the north-east and West Midlands.
While legislation was introduced in 2003 giving SHAs the final say on whether fluoride should be added to local supplies, so far none of them have made use of those powers. The government has no power itself to compel SHAs to act.
The last time a fluoridation scheme was introduced was 1985.
Anti-fluoride campaigners say more research is needed to establish the risks. There have been suggestions of a heightened risk of cancer, infertility and bone fractures, but these have never been substantiated.
However excess fluoride is associated with discolouring of the teeth, a condition known as fluorosis.
Source - BBC