Meth Mouth Madness

class=img_thumbleft>The "meth mouth" epidemic is now accepted fact. Pictures of recovering addicts with blackened, decaying teeth have become staples of newspaper articles and television reports. But is the main cause of these rotting incisors meth use--or simply poor hygiene and eating habits?

Jack Shafer has a provocative piece in Slate exploring this question. He scrutinizes numerous recent media reports, including articles in the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press, that posit a direct correlation between meth use and rotten teeth. Many of these stories, Shafer notes, provide scant (or erroneous) evidence to back up the connection. The most common claim is that the tooth decay rampant in meth addicts is cause by contaminants or acids in the drug. But Shafer shoots this theory down:

The contaminant angle is complete misinformation. Dr. John R. Richards M.D., who studied tooth damage among 49 users in the late 1990s and co-wrote a paper on his finding for the August 2000 issue of the Journal of Periodontology, says users could consume pharmaceutical-grade methamphetamine and still lose their teeth.

Richards concluded that the chief cause of meth mouth was a combination of factors, including poor dental care, sugar consumption, and tobacco use. "It's a lifestyle issue," he tells Shafer.

Of course, meth has become the de facto scapegoat for all of society's problems. As Shafer also notes, nobody would ever think to blame alcohol for people's rotting teeth.

The connections between drug abuse and tooth loss are established in the medical literature, even when the drug is booze. A recent study at the University of Buffalo found that alcohol abuse may lead to periodontal disease, tooth decay, and potentially precancerous mouth sores, but don't expect anybody to call it "Miller mouth."

(Mosedale wrote a nice meth primer for City Pages a couple of years ago.)

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