Armstrong: If dental professionals, hardly fringe radicals, are calling for a tax on sugar we should at least listen

Dave Armstrong:  Those expensive fillings and root canals that financially cripple adults later in life have their ...

Iain McGregor/Stuff

Dave Armstrong: Those expensive fillings and root canals that financially cripple adults later in life have their origins in the dental care received as children.

OPINION: Every six months, the nasty little white card would arrive with the appointment time and I had to attend the Murder House, as we called the dental clinic.

We hopped on a free bus and, like prisoners condemned to the gallows, slowly trudged into the large building in   upper Willis St, which was used for training dental nurses. It now houses some nice apartments.

The dental care was basic and we hated it. Student nurses trained away on our teeth, picking and drilling and filling. Occasionally they would get stuck, turn on the light of the numbered station and wait for a senior nurse, a “sister”, to turn up. Sister would dispense sage advice then the pain would continue.

The treatment lasted a couple of hours, though it seemed like decades. Sometimes a temporary white filling was put in and you hoped like hell the soft substance wouldn’t slip out during the next week.

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At least the drills were electric, not foot-powered as they were in earlier times. And you didn’t want to cause any trouble as Sister may swing by. It was not in anyone’s interest to upset the Sisterhood.

Forget anaesthetics, pain was considered acceptable and washed away the sugary sins you had committed during the last six months.

Dave Armstrong:  The old school dental service was the envy of the world and contributed to our proud postwar record as ...

ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF

Dave Armstrong: The old school dental service was the envy of the world and contributed to our proud postwar record as a world leader in child health.

Most student nurses were friendly and made us butterflies and other animals out of cotton wool to take home. They taught us how to clean our teeth and introduced us to Bertie Germ, who would visit us with his pickaxe at night if we ate sugary treats without brushing.

Did I mention that this service was entirely free? It was the envy of the world and contributed to our proud postwar record as a world leader in child health.

My three siblings and I all still have our teeth. Both our parents, Depression kids, lost all theirs and cursed their dentures all their lives. In my middle-class childhood, every kid went to the Murder House.

A school dental nurse with young patient in Palmerston North in 1974.

Manawatu Standard archives

A school dental nurse with young patient in Palmerston North in 1974.

So if I was getting solid but unspectacular dental care as a kid, then with all the changes in technology, kids must have it great now, right? Not according to the New Zealand Dental Association.

The availability of sugar, the lack of fluoridated water in some areas, and a shortage of dental technicians in schools are contributing to decay in our child dental health system.

In 2016, nearly 100,000 New Zealand children were overdue for check-ups and 7000 required general anaesthetic for dental care. Just under 30,000 children each year have teeth extracted and though arrears rates vary, in some district health board areas up to a quarter of children are not seen on time.

Kids in high-decile schools can wait up to 18 months for treatment. Children in low-decile schools get seen more frequently, but it’s not ideal. Those expensive fillings and root canals that financially cripple adults later in life have their origins in the dental care received as children.

In schools there is an ageing workforce of dental carers, with half due to retire over the next five years. With carers able to earn far more in the private sector, there are considerable staff shortages.

Inside  the main clinic of the Children's Dental Clinic, in  Willis St, Wellington, in 1940.

Evening Post

Inside the main clinic of the Children’s Dental Clinic, in Willis St, Wellington, in 1940.

So what’s the solution? More funding is needed, but it’s not only about money. Fluoridation of all water is a biggie, supported by weird fringe groups like the World Health Organisation, but try advocating it publicly and you can expect a backlash from the highly organised anti-fluoridation movement.

A sugar tax horrifies libertarians and is too “nanny state” for some. But when I think about my childhood, we had a de facto water tax. A large bottle of soft drink cost about nine times as much as a pint of milk, and bulk confectionery was nowhere near as cheap as it is in supermarkets today. If dental professionals, hardly fringe radicals, are calling for a tax on sugar we should at least listen.

Making soft drink manufacturers let us know exactly how much sugar is in their drinks using simple icons – as Katie Ayers, president-elect of the New Zealand Dental Association, suggests – would help.

Pam Shepherd, a school dental nurse, with an unidentified young girl at Wellington's dental training clinic in 1960.

Evening Post

Pam Shepherd, a school dental nurse, with an unidentified young girl at Wellington’s dental training clinic in 1960.

Schools could also come to the non-sugar party. When it comes to fundraising, schools with the best sugar-free intentions suddenly find themselves selling chocolate and sweets at bargain basement prices and having cupcake days.

Programmes to brush teeth in schools are highly successful, and while it may add to a teacher’s workload where sponsored educators can’t be brought in, in terms of preventing problems later, it’s a no-brainer.

Most dentists I know are well-intentioned and professional. Despite some carrying an enormous student debt, many do pro bono work and genuinely want our nation’s dental health to improve.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had a major government programme – which included dentists, schools and DHBs – that declared war on child tooth decay? Even if it had to broach the sensitive topic of nationwide fluoridation and challenge the powerful food lobby over a sugar tax, it could be an excellent way to prevent severe and expensive pain down the track.


 – The Dominion Post

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