Across one of the poorest swaths of America, people guzzle soda like they should be guzzling water, and health advocates there say the damage isn’t just being seen in their waistlines, but in their teeth. Dubbed “Mountain Dew mouth”, the teeth-rotting phenomena would be funny if it weren’t true.
The effects of soft drinks on teeth have been compared with the effects from methamphetamines and crack. These toxic beverages literally eat away at the protective enamel and then go to town, leading to rotted, brown teeth at best and premature death at worst. It’s no surprise that drinking more than one soda each day raises the risk of tooth decay from the acids and sugars ingested.
“I see erosion from the acids in the drinks, and decay from the sugars,” says Steven Ghareeb, spokesman for the Academy of General Dentistry and a practicing dentist in South Charleston, W.Va. “They go hand in hand many times, and they’re equally bad. I would definitely attribute these problems to drinks.” Both sodas and energy drinks, he says, “are more damaging than food.”
Exacerbating the problem is the extreme poverty in some areas of Appalachia. There people can’t always afford dental care, and even if they can, quality care isn’t always available. These are folks living in remote and isolated areas.
It’s estimated 26% of preschoolers in Appalachia already have tooth decay. Another 15% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24, have had a tooth extracted because of decay or erosion. In West Virginia, 67% of adults over the age of 65 have lost six or more teeth to decay or disease.
Because the region is poor, many depend on the country’s food stamp program or SNAP to provide their daily groceries. But they use these benefits to purchase soda, something that health advocates and some politicians say needs to stop.
“We are using taxpayer dollars to buy soda for the SNAP program, and we are using taxpayer dollars to rip teeth out of people’s heads who can’t afford dental care and are on Medicaid,” says Dana Singer, a research analyst at the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department in Parkersburg, W.Va. “It makes no sense to be paying for these things twice.
A 2012 study from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity estimates the federal government is spending $1.7 billion to $2.1 billion on soft drinks through SNAP every year.
For their part, unsurprisingly, the soda industry denies their drinks cause tooth decay. However, one only needs to look at a disturbing photo like this to understand why Mountain Dew mouth is a serious problem.
Some states have proposed legislation that would limit or completely ban the purchase of soft drinks and other sugary treats with SNAP benefits. But one has to wonder, isn’t that a little like punishing the addict rather than the drug-pusher? Couldn’t food makers be held accountable for the garbage they provide and marketing specifically to poor populations?