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Enlisting dentists to fight meth

The Boston Globe, May 3, 2014

METHAMPHETAMINE ADDICTION is the new crack epidemic—a scourge that rips up communities, especially rural ones, and has frustrated many attempts to slow it down. Now a new project from the Tufts School of Dental Medicine suggests that an important weapon in the fight could be dentists.

The idea, as explained in a recent issue of the Tufts Dental Medicine Magazine, was developed by Jennifer Towers after a vacation trip to the small Idaho town of Coeur d’Alene. Towers, the dental school’s director of research affairs, saw lots of young Idahoans with really bad teeth, a side effect of rampant addiction to methamphetamine. The drug can cause teeth gnashing so intense it leads to cracked enamel and, eventually, a grotesque state of tooth decay known as “meth mouth.”

“Meth mouth” is often the most overt sign of addiction, and to Towers that suggests dentists and hygienists should play a frontline role in combatting it. “Meth mouth really dovetails well with drug prevention efforts because it’s so startling,” she says. She designed a screensaver of images of meth mouth that dentists can play in their exam rooms as well as a graphic novel aimed at preteens and a software application that lets you “degrade” a mouth over time to simulate the effects of meth use. The idea is to horrify people—especially teenagers—enough to prevent them from ever trying the drug. In focus groups, Towers has found the response to be strong. “I got a group of 14-year-old girls to be very silent when I showed them the before and after pictures [of meth addicts]. Especially in mid-teen range, they’re pretty concerned about their appearance.”