‘Rotten teeth in toddlers at crisis level’ was the front page headline of The Sunday Times this week, leading to a predictable call for tobacco-style regulation of food. The story was based on quotes from Nigel Hunt of the Royal College of Surgeons who wants graphic photos of rotten teeth to be placed on sweets and fizzy drinks.
It is difficult to hear the claim that tooth decay in Britain is ‘reaching crisis point’ without assuming that things have been getting worse and are now verging on the catastrophic. That is surely the intention of such rhetoric but it is simply not true. Far from getting worse, rates of tooth decay have been declining at a sharp rate in Britain for several decades. In the BBC’s coverage of Hunt’s remarks, the Department of Health conceded that ‘Children’s teeth are dramatically healthier than they were 10 years ago’, though it accepts that there is still room for improvement.
Why settle for the last ten years? According to a report by the Royal College of Surgeons - Professor Hunt’s own organisation - ‘oral health has improved significantly since the 1970s’. Does that include children? You betcha. ‘The dental health of the majority of British children has improved dramatically since the early 1970s,’ according to a 2005 study, mainly because of ‘the widespread availability of fluoride containing toothpastes’. This was confirmed in a 2011 study which concluded that ‘since the 1970s, the oral health of the population, both children's dental decay experience and the decline [in] adult tooth loss, has improved steadily and substantially.’
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of 12 year olds who exhibited clear signs of tooth decay fell from 81 per cent in 1983 to 28 per cent in 2013 - a remarkable decline by any standard. In Scotland, the rate amongst four year olds nearly halved from 62 per cent in 1994 to 32 per cent in 2014. Rates of tooth decay are not just lower than they were in past, they are low by the standards of nearly any other country, with the aforementioned 2005 study finding that ‘levels of dental decay in UK children at 5 and 12 years are amongst the lowest in the world.’
Crisis? What crisis? If one reads The Sunday Times article carefully, it becomes clear that the real problem is the healthcare system. The basis of Hunt’s complaint is that some children are having to wait months before they can have teeth extracted under general anaesthetic in a hospital. This is a disgrace, but it is not due to an epidemic of tooth decay so much as the endemic incompetence and inefficiency in the NHS money pit. As a nation, we have been dutifully brushing our teeth and have reaped the rewards through markedly better dental health, fewer cavities and fewer fillings, but this is not enough for the mandarins of the NHS. The healthcare system cannot live up to its ludicrous billing as The Envy of the World and so, as with all failing socialist projects, scapegoats must be found.
As Douglas Murray observed in The Spectator last month, victim-blaming has become the medical establishment’s default response to its own failures. The shrill demands for government action are a crude diversionary tactic. Can’t get the waiting lists down? Bring in a sugar tax! Unable to carry out minor operations? Put graphic warnings on Mars bars! It is a shameless distraction from the real issue, but when combined with the media’s gross misrepresentation of the facts and the political class’s thirst for legislation, it is a pretty effective one.