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British bad teeth myth debunked

5 June 2015

British bad teeth myth debunked

Cultures around the world often fall victim to damaging, and untrue, stereotypes. Whether it be the “drunken Irish”, “the efficient Germans”, the “surrender-loving French” or the “Deep-South American redneck”, stereotypes like these are still pervasive in the media and dominate cultural representation. The Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbot, recently offended a great many Irish men and women by saying that “anyone who cares to come a party” should have a “a Guinness, or two, or maybe even three” as part of his St. Patricks day message earlier this year. Former Top Gear presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, is a specialist in perpetuating national stereotypes, single-handedly offending the entire nations of India (“This is perfect for India because everyone who comes here gets the trots”) and Mexico (“at the Mexican embassy, the ambassador is going to be sitting there with a remote control like this [snores]. They won’t complain, it’s fine”).

While certain stereotypes may contain grains of truth, at some point and time, many don’t stand up when put under any kind of scrutiny. A recent article in BBC News Magazine has suggested that the myth of British bad teeth is becoming well and truly redundant.  Most would say that the types of stereotypes mentioned above may be harmless but the idea of British people having awful teeth is unflattering, at best. From Austin Powers to the Big Book of British Smiles to the British Bad Guy in Hollywood Films (see Mark Strong as the villain in Sherlock Holmes), the idea of Britons and bad teeth seem to go hand-in-hand in, particularly American, representations of British people.

The BBC article points to private UK spending on improving our teeth has increased sharply, reaching £1.86bn last year, up 27% since 2010. This rise of aesthetic and cosmetic dentistry in the UK in recent years lends weight to the idea that people are increasingly searching for the perfect smile, regardless of whether it requires minor adjustments or large-scale treatment. We are spending more and more for caring for our teeth, with a certain degree of focus on the American-style of aesthetically pleasing, perfectly straight and pearly white teeth. Manchester-based dentist, Lance Knight, believes that people in the UK are more interested in a “more natural look” compared to the dazzling American way, saying that approximately 90% of his patients just want an “improved smile” and not the reality-TV show pearly whites.

In the same way that the media creates and perpetuates these stereotypes, it can also begin to undo them. London dentist, Uchenna Okoye, said: “The media are now more aware of teeth and beauty pages now cover teeth and toothpastes, which years ago didn’t happen. Rightly or wrongly, we are appearance-driven and, as teeth have become more of a focus with makeover shows and celebrity news, people have become more interested – and naturally the health of their teeth as well as the appearance becomes a focus.” People in Britain may indeed be shifting towards wanting a more confident smile, but this preoccupation with improving our teeth goes further than that.

Issues surrounding oral health in the UK go beyond being simply an aesthetic issue. Research consistently points to the importance of oral health, and how it can affect our overall health in diseases like heart disease, prostatitis and diabetes. By taking better care of our teeth, the effects can be felt throughout our body. Not only does having healthy teeth increase our confidence, it could make us healthier too.

The Chief Executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter, has welcomed the place oral health is beginning to occupy in the public consciousness, but firmly believes more work needs to be done. He told us: “The increase in systemic links between poor oral health and conditions detrimental to our overall health continue to be thrust into the public limelight… there is still much work for us to do so that we can ensure the adults of the future are not presented with such ill-health, whether that be of the mouth or of the body as a whole.”

When it comes to overall oral health, the UK, in fact, is doing better than the US according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Their latest figures suggest that the average number of missing teeth or filled teeth for 12 year olds is 0.7 in the UK, and 1.3 in the US. Other figures, however, present a real mixed bag in terms of how we judge our current oral health. While as many as 46% of 15-year olds have signs of visible tooth decay, this is an improvement on the figure of 56% ten years ago.  Meanwhile, two in three children aged 12 are now found to be free of visible dental decay, compared with fewer than one in 10 in 1973.

They may show signs of progress but, for many, these figures of tooth decay being carried into adulthood are still too high. Stephen Fayle, who spoke at a recent Health Select Committee debate on children’s oral health and is also a Consultant in Paediatric Dentistry, commented: “For years we have been hearing predictions that decay is being eliminated, but these figures tell a different story. Sadly, they reflect what we are seeing in hospitals and clinics across the UK.”

In Britain, like most other countries, we are still constantly exposed to sugary foods and drinks and, like Dr Carter pointed out, the work may be gathering momentum, but much more needs to be done. As well as that, the fluoride debate rages on, despite the overwhelming opinion that it would greatly benefit the whole population. Only 10% of the UK population currently have access to fluoridated water, and it is believed that wider access to it would help alleviate the high levels of tooth decay. All in all, however, a tempting analysis would be to tentatively declare a hope that oral health will continue to improve in the next few years.

That old stereotype certainly seems to be wavering under the weight of the evidence. 1.9 million more of us visited the dentist in the last 12 months than in the year 2006. Only 6% of UK adults have no natural teeth, where the figure had been as high as 37% 40 years ago. People in the UK are among the most likely in Europe (72%) to attend dental surgeries (second to the Netherlands at 79%). As we celebrate National Smile Month, they’re certainly seems like there are many reasons to raise a smile and not a crooked, gappy one, at that. Whether we are concentrating on it aesthetically, or from a health point of view, the common joke of the British having bad teeth certainly seems to be decaying rapidly.

So what do you think? Does the myth of British people having bad teeth hold up? Or should it be left in the past. This very topic is the subject of a BBC documentary, the first part of which aired on Thursday 4 June. The next part will be broadcast on Thursday 11 June. 

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