WASHINGTON - I went to the dentist the other day for a routine cleaning and more work on a crown after a root canal. So far this year, I've spent enough on my grill to buy a car. Good chops don't come cheap.
I have forked over more than $2,000 just to save one tooth. Then, when I go to the grocery store, I can hardly afford anything to chew on. Still, in this day and age, you got to have teeth - and not just for eating.
Say you want to become president of the United States. After a televised debate, like the one last night, viewers might come away remembering more about what your teeth looked like than what you had to say.
No doubt Barack Obama's chances would be greatly diminished if his teeth looked like he'd been chewing tobacco. And no hockey mom could even dream of running for high office with teeth like, say, a hockey son.
Even John McCain's irregular rows are exceptional, because almost one third of Americans between 65 and 74 have no teeth at all, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
I certainly don't want to end up looking like some stereotypical hillbilly, gumming down baby food at 65. But you have to pay through the teeth to keep that from happening. According to one federal study, from 1996 to 2004, the cost of the average dental procedure rose 25 percent. And if you want your teeth bright enough to glow in the dark, like, say, Joe Biden's, you might have to take out a second mortgage.
My dentist's office has pamphlets for products such as "OverdentSURE" dental implants and "Opalescence" teeth-whitening systems that feature models with teeth so thickly white they could have been brushed with house paint. I asked my dentist why we judge people by the color of their teeth anyway, since that has nothing to do with the content of their character.
"Bad teeth are a turnoff," he said. "That's why people with bad teeth get jobs in the back room and not out front in customer service." You expect a dentist to say that. But he is not the only one who holds such views.
The BBC reported not long ago that many people associate discolored and crooked teeth with bad breath - and that they regard bad breath as second only to body odor when it comes to offensive personal traits. If you also happen to be wearing tattered clothes, you might as well go live under a bridge, alone.
I admit that dental posters depicting gum disease and rotten teeth are disgusting. But let's not blame the victim. About 100 million people - including many adults who work and have incomes well above the poverty line - are without access to dental care in the United States, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
The consequences could well be an increase in gum disease, which can lead to respiratory infections, bone disease, stroke, heart disease and uncontrolled diabetes. These happen to be some of the most common causes of death in the United States. And the high cost of treating such ailments is the main reason Americans go bankrupt.
Of course, you won't hear politicians talking about tooth decay while flashing their megawatt smiles. With the economy tanking, they want to make sure that Main Street doesn't panic. So they reassure the average Joe with toothless promises to end greed on Wall Street while using the street's cash to finance their campaigns.
They seek to boost Joe's confidence with a toothy twang, sharing a beer at his kitchen table while patting him on the back for being a good American. Some will even look him in the eye and lie through their teeth, saying things like "mission accomplished" in Iraq.
They won't tell Joe that his snaggleteeth are unhealthy and that gum disease will kill him. Then they might actually have to do something about health-care reform.
I asked my hygienist what people do when they can no longer afford good dental care.
"Keep their teeth in a jar on the nightstand," she said. Consider that a stock tip: dentures.
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