The links between smoking and poor oral health have been made by researchers examining the badly rotten teeth of victims of the Great Irish Famine found in an unmarked grave.

The researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and University of Otago carried out the research on the teeth of 363 adult victims of the Great Irish Famine, who died in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse between 1847 and 1851 and were found in an unmarked grave in 2005.

Over half of the victims had missing teeth, 80 per cent showed evidence of tooth decay and there were also signs of pipe smoking marks on the teeth. The study is believed to be the first that exploring the relationship between smoking and oral health in an archaeological sample.

Dr Jonny Geber, from Otago’s Department of Anatomy said the researchers believed the bad condition of the teeth was not due to their diet of potatoes and milk but because of widespread pipe smoking in both men and women. “As a comparative study of the 20th century population on the same diet didn’t have the same evidence of poor oral health.”

“Our study shows that it is not only diet that affects your oral health, but many other factors – and we believe that smoking was a major contributing factor in the Kilkenny population sample,” said Geber.

“The high frequency of clay pipe facets or marks from clenching a pipe between the teeth in many of the skeletons was evidence of smoking in both males and females.

“The current study adds to the growing body of evidence that demonstrates that smoking is not only bad for your health; it is also bad for your teeth.”

Professor Eileen Murphy, from the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University Belfast said the research was important as the current clinical understanding of how smoking affects oral health was not fully understood.

“As well as this, the study also gives us a unique insight into the living conditions of the working classes in Victorian Irish society at the time of the Great Famine,” said Murphy.

“Smoking was evidently an important part of life for these people, a habit that they could enjoy amongst deprived social conditions and a very harsh and difficult life, but it may have contributed to their ill health,” she said.

“Despite a vast amount of historical records surviving from the nineteenth century, very little is known about the experienced living conditions of the poor and labouring classes.”


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