Half of all 12-year-olds in Ireland and three-quarters of 15-year-olds already have tooth decay and a love of high-sugar food and drinks appears to be the main culprit, dentists have warned.
According to Dr Conor McAlister, president of the Irish Dental Association (IDA), there is ‘overwhelming evidence' that sugar is the main dietary cause of decay in both children and adults.
"In Ireland, we have one of the highest per capita soft drinks consumption rates in the western world, at over 100 litres per capita per annum, an average of at least one 330ml can per day," Dr McAlister noted.
He also pointed out that people who consume too much sugar suffer higher rates of other serious health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.
The IDA is calling on the Minister for Health, Dr James Reilly, to ensure that all fizzy drinks carry public health warning labels. It also wants to see legislation passed that would ensure these labels have to highlight the sugar content contained in these products.
"The health warning system has really worked well for tobacco and alcohol products and it is time for similar warnings to be placed on food and drink products so that consumers can make a fully informed choice," Dr McAlister insisted.
Meanwhile, the IDA reiterated its call to the HSE to ensure that any revenue raised from a future ‘sugar tax' would be used to finance the restoration of the medical card and PRSI dental schemes.
Last year, medical card holders had all cover for non-emergency dental care removed, while the PRSI scheme was reduced to only cover the cost of an annual check-up.
In relation to the medical card scheme, the IDA insisted that this move has led to a ‘dramatic collapse' in the number of routine dental treatments being provided to patients and this is particularly affecting children.
"Studies show it is children from more deprived backgrounds who have a higher risk of decay and unfortunately these are the very people who have been hardest hit by the HSE's cutbacks in the public dental service," Dr McAlister commented.
Figures show that in 2009, over 600,000 fillings were carried out. However, in the first eight months of this year, just 221,000 had been completed. Meanwhile almost 40,000 X-rays were carried out in 2009, but not a single X-ray had been carried out in the first eight months of this year.
There were also major declines in scaling and polishing, oral examinations, denture work and extractions.
Meanwhile, the IDA, as part of its pre-budget submission, has also called for the filling of all vacant posts in the HSE's public dental services ‘in order to reduce waiting times for both screening and treatment for tens of thousands of children and special needs patients around the country'.