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Governments must take on global sugar industry to tackle oral disease epidemic

Governments must take on the sugar industry and introduce policies like higher sugar taxes to tackle an oral disease epidemic, dental public health researchers have warned.

In a special series of papers in the Lancet, researchers including UCL’s Prof Richard Watt – one of the BRC’s Oral Health and Disease theme’s investigators – said dentistry is now in a ‘state of crisis’ – with oral disease affecting more than 3.5 billion people around the world despite being largely preventable – and cannot deal with this epidemic alone as it is focused on intervening after disease has already occurred.

Despite the fact that sugar is the primary cause of oral health diseases – with tooth decay the most common disease – the researchers said the global sugar industry uses its power to discredit oral health research and recommendations on diet and nutrition; block reports and policy; and downplay the role of sugar as a cause of disease.

They argued industry should be blocked from funding, sponsoring or supporting dental professional organisations, universities, researchers and policy makers. Governments should tighten industry regulation with measures such as minimum pricing, taxes and restrictions on advertising and promotion of sugary foods and drinks targeting children.

In an interview with the Lancet’s Rachael Davies, Prof Watt said: “Dental treatment itself can’t solve [this] problem. We need a radically different approach.”

He said that “many chronic conditions share common pathways and causes” and that measures to tackle oral disease would also help address conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

The Lancet papers also reviewed the incidence of lip and oral cavity cancers, which are among the top 15 most common cancers worldwide, with half a million cases in 2018.

In a critique of dentistry, researchers said the field has historically been too reactive with dentists intervening once disease has occurred, and too focussed on surgery (using a drill, scalpel or other instruments) rather than prevention. They said this is not the fault of individual dentists, who are committed to patient care, but said it meant upstream, population-wide measures were now necessary.

Researchers also said in many low income countries dentistry is an unaffordable luxury reserved for the wealthy, and needs to be integrated with mainstream healthcare systems – in particular primary care.

Read the Lancet Series on oral health.