Up to one in three kids have tooth decay, and sugar is to blame: experts

One in three Australian children have tooth decay in their baby teeth by the age of five to six.
One in three Australian children have tooth decay in their baby teeth by the age of five to six. Photo: AAP

“If we are talking about dental care, we need to talk about sugar.”

That’s according to Professor Marco Peres, lead author on a paper about the global public health challenge of oral diseases published in Lancet on Friday.

Tooth decay – scientifically known as dental caries – is one of the most common diseases in the world. Untreated tooth decay in adult teeth affects over one third (34.1 per cent) of the global population, according to the Lancet Series on oral health.

Associate Professor Matthew Hopcraft, chief executive of the Australian Dental Association Victorian Branch, said tooth decay rates in Australia reflected the global numbers.

“One in three kids by the age of five to six have tooth decay in their baby teeth, and 40 per cent of kids by the age of 12 to 14 have tooth decay in their adult teeth,” he said.

Professor Peres, who is based at the Menzies Health Institute Queensland and Griffith University, said we wouldn’t have tooth decay without sugar, and soft drinks are the "major source of sugar in the global diet".

“This is a big problem in this country," he said. "The consumption of sugary drinks is highest in North America, Latin America and Australasia."

Professor Hopcraft said Australian teenagers were consuming on average more than three times the recommended amount of added sugar.

“The average teenager is consuming about 20 teaspoons of added sugar a day – the World Health Organisation recommends reducing your added sugar to less than six teaspoons.”

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Both experts said reducing added sugar intake with measures such as a sugar tax was key to bringing down the prevalence of tooth decay, but that faced opposition from both governments and the sugar industry.

“The history of the vast tobacco battle is happening again, now this time it’s the sugar industry,” Professor Peres said, highlighting the millions of dollars soft drink beverage companies spent lobbying the US government.

University of Sydney Professor Lisa Bero, who co-wrote a comment piece for the Lancet series, said the sugar industry's influence on dental research "has driven the dental profession to emphasise treatment rather than prevention of oral and other diseases related to sugar".

Professor Hopcraft said the role of government in measures like a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages was "really critical".

Other regulatory measures could include putting the amount of added sugar on food labels, changing the health star rating so products that are high in sugar do not receive good scores, and restricting the advertising of sugary products to children, he suggested.

“They’re sort of the roles we feel there’s room for regulation and for government to take some key action to help drive down sugar consumption, which will have huge benefits in the community around oral health,” Professor Hopcraft said.

Professor Peres said working with experts in other non-communicable diseases such as obesity and diabetes might be the key to reducing the influence of Big Sugar.

“If you fight against sugar, the benefit will be in terms of reduced obesity, diabetes, and also dental caries and tooth loss.”

However, Professor Hopcraft said there will be no solution to reducing the nation’s sugar intake without government help.

“Unfortunately the rhetoric that we tend to hear a lot of is this is all about individual responsibility, it's you deciding not to drink that can of soft drink,” he said.

“Which completely misses the point that the whole environment is being shaped by the food industry to make it really difficult for consumers to do that, and that's where food labelling and health star ratings are really important because that's a way of empowering consumers to make a healthy choice.”

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