To save children’s teeth, UK dentists urge schools to police sugar intake

By Kristine Sherred

- Last updated on GMT

Hospitals treated more than 100k cases of tooth decay in the UK from 2015 to 2018. Pic: Getty Images/romrodinka
Hospitals treated more than 100k cases of tooth decay in the UK from 2015 to 2018. Pic: Getty Images/romrodinka

Related tags Dental caries Uk sugar tax Taxation in the united kingdom Sugar Chocolate reformulation sugar reduction school meals regulations

The Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons is lobbying for ‘sugar-free schools’ and a recommitment to previously established nutrition standards.

About a quarter of English 5-year-olds’ teeth show ‘visible decay,’ according to government data. The RCS analyzed reports from the National Health System’s digital records of admitted patients, as well as statistics from Public Health England.

The issue of tooth decay is also exacerbated in ‘deprived’ areas, where more than a third of 5-year-olds show decay compared with only 13% in the ‘least-deprived’ regions.

NHS data also revealed that tooth decay ‘remains a prominent cause of hospital admission’ for young children, surpassing 102k cases from 2015 to 2018. In fact, for kids aged 5 to 9, tooth decay was the number-one reason they visited an NHS hospital in each of the last three years. The secondary reason was tonsillitis.

The scourge of child dental decay cannot be allowed to continue,”​ said professor and FDS dean Michael Escudier in a statement. “Everyone needs to play their part in ensuring our children have healthy, happy teeth.”

The dentists believe limiting the availability of sugary food and drink in schools​ will curb the overall amount of sugar children consume and thus improve their oral health.

UK soft drinks tax

Enacted in 2018, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy adds a 24-pence tax ($0.29) on beverages with 8g of sugar per 100ml, and a 18-pence tax ($0.22) for drinks with 5g to 8g of sugar per 100ml.

“While the government has committed to reviewing school food standards, we would like to see them go beyond this to encourage all schools in England to become sugar-free,”​ said Escudier, adding that the group would also support formal nutritional guidelines for packed lunches.

Taxes and reformulation show progress

The FDS’s oral health campaign, launched in 2015, has improved the situation alongside other government policies, such as the tax on soft drinks – but continued attention is ‘vital.’

One such proposal requests a public health campaign recommending annual dental visits and free NHS dental care for children under the age of 18.

“It is incredibly worrying that levels of tooth decay among children in England remain so high – especially when you consider that it is almost entirely preventable through simple steps,”​ said Escudier. Prevention techniques involve brushing twice daily with fluoride toothpaste, visiting the dentist regularly and reducing sugar intake.

The government has developed several public campaigns to assist these efforts, including ‘Starting Well 13,’ a program that allows dentists in 13 communities with high rates of child tooth decay to better connect with and educate parents.

Its sugar reduction arm aims to reduce the sugar content of food and drink products by 20% by 2020, though additional proposals could hinder the promotion of high-sugar foods like candy (in a buy-one-get-one-free deal, for instance) and the timing of them (as in commercials before 9 pm watershed).

The FDS report noted that several schools in London have already gone ‘sugar-free’ – proof that the approach has merit for nationwide success.

Case studies

A case study in a Leeds school revealed tension between what children could buy (or were offered through a free lunch program) and what other students brought in packed lunches, with one student describing the disparity as ‘unfair.’

Conversely, a ‘packed lunch audit’ at the John Scurr Primary School in London demanded that lunches made at home omit sugary drinks, crisps and chocolate. Through letters to parents, assemblies and even a theater performance extolling the virtues of health eating, the school said students adhere to the new rules​. 

London mayor Sadiq Khan led the movement to ban from public transit the advertisement of food and drink products high in fat, sugar and salt​.

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