A health levy on sugary drinks to help pay for the thousands of children’s rotten teeth pulled out each year tops a dentists’ spokesman wish list for World Oral Health Day.

Health Central asked the New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) and the New Zealand Dental and Oral Health Therapists Association (NZDOHTA) about the state of New Zealand’s oral health and what changes they’d like to see by the time World Oral Health Day rolls around again in 12 months’ time.

Dr Rob Beaglehole, the NZDA’s spokesman on sugary drinks, said the association has a number of actions on its sugary drink policy it would like to see the new Government adopt but high on his list was a health levy on sugary drinks to help pay for the damage the drinks caused.

“Nearly half of all five-year-old kids have a body part rotting i.e. a baby tooth with decay, we’ve got 29,000 children last year who had to have one or multiple teeth taken out due to pain or abscesses and about 7,500 of those had to have a general anaesthetic to have their tooth removed.”

“It’s the number one reason kids get admitted to hospital in New Zealand is to have their teeth taken our under general anaesthetic,” said Beaglehole.  “It’s an appalling state of affairs and one that we hope that the new Minister of Health Dr David Clark is going to take seriously and put in place numerous policies that will radically reduce the sugar consumption of New Zealanders.”

Baby teeth are important too

Arish Naresh, chair of the NZDOHTA, also put a high priority on the oral health of children – particular the under-five-year-olds as he said they experienced more decay than any other age group because of the lack of importance parents and caregivers placed on a child’s baby teeth.

He said his own Master’s research in 2016 at Tairāwhiti District Health Board, where he is the leader of oral health services, revealed that the oral health of the five to 12 year age group showed the most improvement. The greatest gap was meeting the needs of pre-schoolers and he believed to make lasting change the oral health sector needed to work closely with other sectors to improve health literacy and ensure the key oral health messages were delivered “constantly and with consistency”.

“Recently, there has been a lot of debate about the sugar tax and while it is one of the ways to address growing dental decay; education and behaviour change through the improvement of health literacy would be higher on my ladder as an initiative than a sugar tax,” said Naresh.  The latest Oral Health data from 2016 shows that more than 40 per cent of five-year-olds examined had tooth decay but this dropped to less than 38 per cent of year 8 students (about age 12).

Both Beaglehole and Naresh supported public health initiatives to increase community water fluoridation, with legislation currently before parliament aimed at this purpose.  The NZDA’s sugary drink policy includes calls for teaspoon icons on the outside of drinks indicating how much sugar they contain, introducing warning labels highlighting that sugary drinks are risk factors for tooth decay, obesity and diabetes;  introducing ‘water-only’ policies at schools, hospitals and local body facilities like swimming pools; and looking at the marketing of sugary drinks to children – including using role models like the All Blacks to advertise and promote sugary drinks.

Beaglehole says a teaspoon icon would make people aware that a 600ml bottle of coca-cola contained 16 teaspoons of sugar, a 1.5 litre bottle 40 teaspoons and a bottle of juice was like getting the sugar equivalent of eating 8-10 apples in one hit.

Negative report on sugar tax ‘garbage’

But he believed a health levy – or a targeted tax per litre of sugary drink – would also help encourage people to shift to water as the ‘unequivocal’ evidence from Mexico was that a tax there had led to a 10 per cent reduction in consumption of sugary drinks.

Beaglehole described the  New Zealand Institute of Economic Research’s recent report to the Ministry of Health, Sugar taxes: a review of the evidence, as ‘garbage’ as it had ‘cherry-picked the evidence and epidemiologists like Boyd Swinburn agreed the report drew the wrong conclusion about the impact of a sugar tax or levy.

He said the report saying there was no evidence that a sugar tax would lead to a reduction in obesity was “a bit like saying back in the 60s or 70s there is no evidence that a tax on tobacco is going to reduce lung cancer – it is too soon to see”.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson needed to take the sugary drink issue seriously and adopt a health levy on all sugary drinks – not a tax – so the money collected was spent on treating the harm caused by sugary drinks, said Beaglehole. “There are numerous options where that money could go to – like fixing up kids’ teeth in hospital or subsidising low-income adults to dental care.”

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