Children and teenagers underwent almost 43,000 “completely preventable” operations to remove rotting teeth last year, costing the NHS more than £36m, according to new figures.
Analysis of NHS spending data by the Local Government Association (LGA) found that £36.2m was spent on 42,911 extractions for under-18s in 2016/17, which equates to 170 operations a day.
It represents an almost-20% increase over the past four years and a total cost to the NHS of £165m since 2012, as many youngsters face trips to hospital for operation under general anaesthetic due to the severity of their tooth decay.
An NHS England spokesman said eating sugary food and drinks was “driving this unfortunate and unnecessary epidemic”, with the LGA’s figures released just a week after Public Health England (PHE) said half of children’s sugar intake came from unhealthy snacks and drinks.
PHE has called for children to be limited to just two snacks of no more than 100 calories per day, having found that they currently eat almost 400 biscuits per year – plus hundreds of other sugary snacks.
The LGA, which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, said further action was needed to tackle the amount of sugar being consumed, such as reducing the amount in soft drinks, introducing teaspoon labelling on food packaging, and councils getting a say on where the revenue from the soft drinks levy is spent when it is introduced in April.
Cllr Izzi Seccombe, chairwoman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “These figures, which have risen sharply, show that we have an oral health crisis and highlight the damage that excessive sugar intake is doing to young people’s teeth.
“The fact that, due to the severity of the decay, 170 operations a day to remove teeth in children and teenagers have to be done in a hospital is alarming and also adds to current pressures on the NHS.
“This concerning trend shows there is an urgent need to introduce measures to curb our sugar addiction which is causing children’s teeth to rot.
“Untreated dental care remains one of the most prevalent diseases affecting children and young people’s ability to speak, eat, play and socialise.
“These figures also highlight how regular check-ups at a dentist can help prevent tooth decay and the need for hospital treatment.”
Health ministers have been accused of failing to confront the “wholly preventable disease” of tooth decay by the British Dental Association, with chairman Mick Armstrong describing the LGA’s figures as a “badge of dishonour” for them.
“Tooth decay is the number one reason for child hospital admissions, but communities across England have been left hamstrung without resources or leadership,” he continued.
“This short-sightedness means just a few thousand children stand to benefit from policies that need to be reaching millions.”
Unlike Wales and Scotland, England has no dedicated national child oral health programme, although NHS England has developed the Starting Well campaign, which is aimed at helping under-fives in “high-need communities” see their dentist and improve their oral health.
But Professor Russell Viner, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said more needed to be done, with thousands of children and their families faced with anxiety over “completely preventable” operations.
“As many of these operations are due to the food and drink children consume, they are completely preventable and pose an unnecessary financial burden on our overstretched NHS,” he added.
“At a time when we are faced with reports of chronic bed shortages and cancelled operations, these latest startling statistics should act as a wake-up call to policy makers and act as the catalyst for change.”
It comes just a few months after the Government was urged to crack down on TV adverts for junk food in a bid to improve children’s health – although that was focused on the UK’s obesity crisis rather than dental hygiene.