‘Big sugar’ holding back dental health

Scottish oral health expert says dentistry must move from individual treatment to society-wide prevention

Sunday 21st July 2019

Dental health experts are warning governments need to take on big sugar corporations if they are to tackle oral disease.

In a series of articles published in the Lancet scientific journal, researchers argue ‘comprehensive regulation and legislation’ is needed to combat influential strategies used by industry groups to promote sugar consumption.

Lorna Macpherson, professor of dental public health at Glasgow university and co-author behind one of the articles, tells healthandcare.scot “we clearly have to look at the relationship between big sugar companies and regulation in all countries.”

In the Lancet, experts say the burden of oral disease, which is concentrated in low income groups, is likely to worsen despite scientific and treatment advances.

The traditional system of treating problems after they occur is described as ‘no longer fit for purpose’.

Instead, Prof Macpherson says a greater emphasis on prevention across society is needed “if you’re really going to improve oral health in future and reduce oral health inequalities.”

Reducing the amount of sugar people consume by pushing back against the strategies used by sugar companies lies at the centre of this.  

Authors warn industry is using financial muscle to ‘undermine public health efforts to reduce free sugar consumption’.

Another article in the series finds companies like Mars are funding international tooth decay research organisations and warns similar companies prioritise research aiming to ‘protect industry profits, not advance public health’.

“We should be ensuring that we have better conflicts of interest policies, in relation to research organisations, just to absolutely ensure [the sugar industry] is not influencing and cannot be seen to be influencing our research agenda,” Prof Macpherson says.

In Scotland, despite successes like Childsmile, a national programme that has “dramatically” improved oral health among Scottish youngsters, Prof Macpherson believes health inequalities are still the “major challenge”.

With many of the risk factors for poor dental health like tobacco, alcohol and sugar consumption also causing common non-communicable diseases like diabetes, she believes says the future of dentistry lies in working with colleagues across healthcare.

“I think [in the past] dentistry was still slightly isolated…we probably do need to be more integrated into generic health and social care, rather than just being seen to be dentistry on its own, and be part of wider public health agendas.”