A Guest OpEd by Dr. Laura Hancock Jones, Dr. O. Wayne Mortenson, and Rick Whitehouse
Most of us, when we think about the dangers of smoking, see lung cancer as the biggest risk. And it's a fact that in Kentucky, cancer and smoking frequently go hand in hand. A higher percentage of Kentuckians get lung cancer than in any other state, and Kentucky has one of the highest smoking rates in the country as well.
It's also true that smoking affects not just your lungs, but nearly every part of your body. So it shouldn't surprise us that 80 percent of people who get oral cancer are smokers.[i] Still, it may come as a shock that smoking causes cancers of the mouth, throat, tongue, sinuses, lips, voice box, and esophagus.
But long before cancer can be diagnosed, smoking damages your mouth, teeth, and gums in other insidious ways. The tar and nicotine in cigarettes stain your teeth yellow, and eventually brown. Smoking causes bad breath. It also causes gum disease, making your gums red, swollen and sore, so that it's hard to chew or even sleep. Gum disease caused by smoking can become so severe that your teeth fall out or have to be pulled.
Poor oral health also is linked to diabetes, stroke, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and cardiovascular disease. Dental cavities left untreated can lead to life-threatening secondary infections.
The bottom line, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is that current smokers have poorer oral health and more oral health problems than either former smokers or persons who have never smoked. Certainly, Kentucky's high smoking rate shows up in our state's oral health status: Kentucky ranks 42nd lowest in the nation for the percentage of adults 18 and older who've had one or more permanent teeth extracted due to tooth decay or gum disease.[ii]
The toothless grin that is so adorable on a developing infant or youngster losing baby teeth gives great joy, but that emotion is lost for an adult who has premature tooth loss. Rotting or missing teeth also make finding and keeping employment and engaging in healthy social activities more difficult.
Wouldn't it be a breath of fresh air if we knew how to reduce Kentucky's high smoking rate?
In case after case across the country, the data show that raising taxes significantly on cigarettes leads to lower smoking rates. And the people most likely to quit are youth, lower-income groups and pregnant women who are more sensitive to the price hikes caused by a significant tax increase.
We support efforts to raise Kentucky's cigarette tax by at least $1, so that the resulting price increase has its intended effect: reduced smoking rates and better oral health. It has to be at least $1; otherwise, tobacco companies will pass out coupons and offer in-store promotions that diminish the impact on price and, in turn, on smoking rates and health.
Smoking is a major factor in Kentucky's poor oral health. We urge legislators and the Governor to support a $1 or more tobacco tax increase in the 2018 legislative session. Let's put a healthier smile on the face Kentucky presents to the world.
Waverly dentist Dr. Laura Hancock Jones chairs the Kentucky Oral Health Coalition. Dr. O. Wayne Mortenson is a Louisville-based dentist, and founder and CEO of Mortenson Dental Partners. Rick Whitehouse is a lawyer and healthcare executive serving as executive Director of the Kentucky Dental Association. All three organizations are partners in the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow.