Dental industry urges government action on unhealthy food following new report

Published by Scott Challinor on August 16th 2021, 11:11am

Following the publication of a landmark National Food Strategy report, dental industry bodies have urged the government to take action that will help improve oral health across the nation.

The report uncovered that unhealthy diet is responsible for 64,000 deaths per year in England, costing the economy around £74 billion.

Spearheaded by healthy food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby, the study earmarks processed junk foods which are high in salt, sugar and fat content as a major blame factor.

The report goes on to recommend that the government implements a new sugar and salt tax on unhealthy food to build on the success of the existing sugar levy and help generate revenue which could go toward making healthier food more accessible to low-income families.

The existing sugar tax has already seen sales of drinks containing more than eight grams of sugar plunge by 44 per cent in its first year of operation, and the idea of a new tax and the benefits it could bring has proven sufficient for the Oral Health Foundation and the British Dental Association [BDA] to throw their weight behind it.

The report forecasts that such a tax has the potential to raise between £2.9 billion and £3.4 billion per year for the UK Treasury, as well as lowering the average sugar and salt intake to a point where weight gain across the population will be limited.

The Oral Health Foundation and the BDA believe that the new levy - if introduced - will encourage food manufacturers to reduce the levels of sugar and salt in their products by reducing portion sizes and adjusting recipes. The BDA also points out that tooth decay caused by such foods has been the leading reason for hospital admissions among young children in the UK, with deprived communities most adversely affected.

Indeed, the National Food Strategy report itself says that children living in the UK’s most deprived communities are three times more likely to experience tooth decay at the age of five, and the BDA expects these inequalities to become worse in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.

To ensure these inequalities do not widen and the oral health situation across the UK is not allowed to intensify, the Oral Health Foundation and the BDA have both called for more action at the legislative level.

The Oral Health Foundation’s chief executive Dr Nigel Carter OBE said: “When it comes to diet, many people think we all have the same choices, but that’s not always true. The report found that on average, highly processed foods are three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods. It means that many families are trapped in a junk food cycle, which often translates to greater sugar consumption.

“The impact that sugar has on teeth is truly horrific and is responsible for widening health inequalities. It is the reason why one-in-three adults in the UK have tooth decay and why around 35,000 children are admitted to hospital every year for tooth extractions under general anaesthesia on the NHS.

“We’ve seen the success of the Soft Drinks Levy, that saw swathes of soft drink manufacturers slash the sugar content of their products. It also raised an estimated £1.5 billion for the Treasury between its introduction in 2018 and the beginning of this year. The majority of which has gone to fund healthy eating and exercise projects in schools.”

Carter also believes that a new tax could have positive repercussions for dental health across the whole of the UK but called on the government to support more deprived communities to make healthier food more accessible.

“It is vital families on lower incomes are supported so that healthy, fresh food that is low-in-sugar, is more accessible to them. The report’s recommendations could improve the lives of disadvantaged families and reduce dental decay in children, as well as making them fitter and healthier. We urge the government to take this report seriously and come up with an effective strategy to build a healthier nation for the future.”

The BDA’s health and science chair, Mick Armstrong, also believes that sustained action as part of a wider action plan to tackle obesity and other diet-related conditions is necessary and emphasised the importance of educating the population about the link between sugar consumption and oral disease.

Armstrong said: “If the government is serious about tackling preventable disease it must build on the ambition set out in this strategy. Over consumption of sugar causes both dental decay and obesity but dental disease is largely irreversible. That link should be made clear and more widely acknowledged.

“Ministers are making the right noises on prevention but need to take a joined-up approach. Willingness to build on the success of the sugar levy will be a litmus test.

“Every day dentists see how sugar fuels ill health and grotesque inequalities that are now set to widen. Ministers must show they are willing to act on root causes, and fix Britain’s failed food culture.”

Dentists themselves have long spoken about the need for health education as a preventative tool against oral disease. Dr Sundip Kalirai, principal dentist at the award-winning Harrow Weald Dental Practice, has singled out the need to education patients about their own oral health as one of the most pressing issues in the dental care sector.

Dr Kalirai told The Parliamentary Review: “Every year, 40,000 young children need to be treated in hospital for the extraction of rotten teeth, costing the NHS roughly £35 million annually. This is a national failure of education with regards to dental care.”

While Dr Kalirai and his practice regularly visit schools and deliver talks to encourage good hygiene habits and attempt to alleviate the problem, he has long believed that more action is needed at the ministerial level.

“Given that dental disease is preventable, it is even more shocking that failure of education costs the NHS so much. While new schemes are starting to address the issue, much more action is needed.”

With the success of the sugar levy having been proven and the sugar and salt reformulation tax having the potential to build on that, the key in Dr Kalirai’s view should the second levy come into force is to ensure revenues are redirected toward educative and preventative measures.

He said: “We need to ensure that the money raised in the sugar tax is invested in prevention. This will radically reduce the number of children who are suffering and undergoing procedures for the extraction of rotten teeth.”

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Authored By

Scott Challinor
Business Editor
August 16th 2021, 11:11am

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