PepsiCo, the makers of Mountain Dew soda, says it has reached out to a dentist working to save children's teeth in eastern Kentucky, after ABC News reports on the problem of tooth decay, or "Mountain Dew mouth," in the region.
Dr. Edwin Smith, a dentist in Barbourville, Ky., invested $150,000 of his own money to build a mobile dental clinic, Kids First Dental Care, inside an 18-wheel truck.
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In a statement, PepsiCo said that its vice president of global health policy had reached out to Smith to learn more about his clinic after Smith's appearance on "Good Morning America" today.
"They also discussed how we might support his efforts to educate people in Appalachia about proper dental care and help them lead healthier lifestyles," the statement said. CLICK HERE to read the full statement.
"We would welcome any support we can get from Pepsi," Smith said. "Our concern is bettering the dental health of these kids. Kids who need help right now -- not just with education, but with the practicalities of getting their teeth fixed."
Several days a week, Smith criss-crosses the curvy roads of 16 eastern Kentucky counties to offer free dental screenings and services to hundreds of students. Most children dread the dentist, but those who line up outside Smith's van are often giddy with anticipation. For many, it's the first and only dental check-up they'll have for years.
"It's a generational thing, I think," said Smith. "Grandma had dentures, mom had dentures, it's just inevitable that I'm going to end up with dentures, is the way some of these kids feel. I really believe we have to do a better job educating."
Smith says he's seen firsthand the results of neglect among these children. Teenagers have pulled their own teeth with pliers because of tooth pain, and he's treated 2-year-olds with up to 12 cavities in their baby teeth.
It's a stereotype rooted in a terrible fact. Central Appalachia is No. 1 in the nation in toothlessness. According to dentists, one of the main culprits is Mountain Dew soda. With 50 percent more caffeine than Coke or Pepsi, Mountain Dew seems to be used as a kind of anti-depressant for children in the hills.
Brushing Teeth 'Too Painful'
Kids drink the soda in school, at football games and before going to bed at night. And drinking the sugary soda loaded with caffeine often starts early. Dentists speak about families who put soda in baby bottles.
"Other sodas, too," said Smith, "but Mountain Dew is unique because it has a lot of sugar and a lot of acid. If you're taking a drink every 20 minutes, that's like bathing the teeth in it all day."
"It's just rampant decay," adds Dr. Stacie Moore-Martin of the Mud Creek Clinic in Grethel, Ky. "People are addicted to Mountain Dew. It's terrible."
PepsiCo told ABC News in an initial statement that it's preposterous to blame soft drinks for dental decay, saying that raisins and cookies stay in the mouth longer. They added that a balanced diet and proper dental hygiene like flossing and brushing teeth after meals and snacks should prevent decay. CLICK HERE to read the first statement.
After a report on the topic aired on "Good Morning America" Thursday, PepsiCo sent an additional statement saying that their products "consumed in moderation, can be part of a healthy, balanced diet."
They said the company is "continually expanding our offerings of healthier, more nutritious products" and that they "offer a wide range of sugar-free and caffeine-free products." They also said they are working with schools, non-profits and the government to educate people about healthier lifestyles. CLICK HERE to read the second statement.
The dental dilemma in Kentucky is that nearly one out of every two of the state's children are enrolled in Medicaid, but barely a quarter of dentists accept the insurance. So for the Appalachian families on Medicaid, they often have few options when or if they want to see a dentist.
One of Smith's patients, 11-year-old Anthony, hadn't been able to brush his teeth in several weeks because it hurt too much. He says he drank too much Mountain Dew.
"He wasn't able to brush up there around the gum because it was too painful," Smith said. "It's causing the gums to be inflamed."
But after his appointment, Anthony's smile was as good as new. Those smiles are Smith's gifts to the mountains.