Dentists the New Weapon in the War on Drugs

With so many chronic health conditions linked to oral health, professionals in the dental industry are taking on more of a prominent role in the diagnosis of conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Combine that fact with the research that found that more Americans visit the dentist annually than a general practitioner, and you can understand why. A logical progression from this point could lead dentists to the front-lines of other health issues, such as the fight against drug-addiction, specifically methamphetamine, or so claims a group from the Tufts School of Dental Medicine.

According to a recent Boston Globe article, the idea behind the new project came after Jennifer Towers, director of research affairs for Tufts School of Dental Medicine, took a trip to Coeur d’Alene, a small town in northern Idaho. After noticing several young adults who were experiencing extreme tooth decay and loss, Towers began asking questions. She thought maybe there weren’t enough dentists in the area or that people might not be able to afford dental care. But after investigating, she discovered that the culprit was actually methamphetamine, or meth for short. The drug, which is highly addictive, causes rapid and extreme tooth decay, now known as “meth mouth.” The condition is often the most obvious sign of addiction, which led Towers to believe that dentists and hygienists could play a pivotal role in combatting the nationwide problem. The theory led to Towers’ master’s thesis and the development of an anti-meth campaign targeted at teens.

One of the reasons that methamphetamine is so rampant is that it easily made out of several common household items. Because it’s easy to make (and therefore very cheap), teenagers are often exposed and become easily addicted to the drug. While meth is a problem across the United States, it has become a much larger issue in rural areas. According to the Journal of Rural Health, in 2008 teens aged 12-17 living in rural areas were using meth at a much greater rate than their urban counterparts. For that reason, Towers targeted teens in her campaign, also playing on their age-appropriate egoism. She designed a screensaver of images of meth mouth examples to be shown in dental exam rooms across the nation and wrote a graphic novel aimed at preteens. A software application was also developed that allows users to “degrade” a mouth over time to show the effects of meth use. “The idea is to horrify people, especially teenagers, enough to prevent them from ever trying the drug.”

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