"In Britain today, you can stuff yourself on deep-fried Mars Bars, drink 20 pints a night, inject yourself with heroin, smoke 60 cigarettes a day or decide to change your sex - and the NHS has an obligation to treat you. You might go on a waiting list, but it will do its best to cure your lung cancer, patch up your nose after a drunken brawl or give you a hip replacement. But if you have bad teeth, forget it. You may be rolling on the bathroom floor in agony with an abscess, your gums may be riddled with disease, or people may recoil at the sight of your fangs as you walk down the street, but the NHS doesn't have to help you.
It is now virtually impossible for many people to find an NHS dentist, and if they do manage to squeeze on to a list, they could still be charged 80 per cent of the cost of treatment - unless they are a child, pregnant or on benefits. The health service under both the Tories and Labour has victimised the dentally challenged - that is, anyone who hasn't inherited strong teeth and a perfect picket fence smile. Few can easily afford to go to any dentist now. My husband went to a private dentist after a 15-year gap, and was left reeling after they extracted £2,000 for 12 fillings. My three-year-old son received a bill for £90 after I stupidly asked my private dentist whether she could have a quick look at his teeth.
A survey by Mori for the Citizens Advice Bureau this week found that seven and a half million Britons have failed to gain access to an NHS dentist in the past two years. In one quarter of the country, no NHS dentists are allowing new patients to join their lists. And despite government targets that every child should have his teeth seen by an expert every year, more than one in three children never see an NHS dentist.
Families such as mine, who have large, unruly teeth, have become part of a new genetic underclass, discriminated against by the state. If my parents had been forced to pay the dentist's bills when we were children, they would have gone broke. My teeth were so bad at the age of 13 that the head of orthodontics at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford heard about me, and took me on as a case history. Three years of tram tracks, elastic bands and the removal of eight teeth later, and I am a shining example of the orthodontist's art; but every time one of my children loses a milk tooth, I know it could cost far more than £1 for the tooth fairy.
The situation for adults is even worse. One friend, Victoria, was told that a crown would cost her £700 privately, the price of her summer holiday. The queue for an NHS dentist was so long that her tooth broke before it was treated and she had to spend £350 having it pulled out. She should have followed the example of the Wiltshire toothache sufferer who told the Citizens Advice Bureau that he now takes out many of his teeth in his shed - with pliers. More than one in 20 have said they resort to DIY surgery.
There is, of course, the option to go private, but with more and more former NHS patients forced to pay, dentists' charges are now the most expensive in Europe
Having bad teeth can blight your life. Britain used to be known for its terrible incisors In Mexico, bad teeth are called "dientes ingles". But gradually we have caught up with America. Now bad teeth are now seen as unacceptably sloppy: no presenter would be allowed on children's television without a polished grin. Even Gordon Brown appeared to have had his teeth fixed before he became Prime Minister. As the public face of the nation's teeth has improved, so has the pressure on everyone else. As a country, we spend £360 million on cosmetic dentistry a year.
But there are increasingly two dental nations in Britain and those who can't afford the fees have worse teeth than ever before. With bad teeth, you are less likely to find a good job or a successful relationship. The elderly, in particular, can find their lives racked by toothache and an inability to eat properly. Gum disease also increases the risk of mouth cancer, and pancreatic cancer in men.
This is a deep-rooted problem that needs a drill taken to it. The Government should start by scrapping the new contract that it introduced for dentists in 2006. Dentists are now paid a fixed fee, in exchange for completing a certain number of units of NHS dental activity a year: the net result is that idle dentists never get round to seeing enough patients - and their funding is subsequently reduced - and energetic dentists are forced to look to the private sector for more work after they fill their quota. In 1990, only six per cent of dentists' income came from private patients; now it's 58 per cent. Worse, NHS dentists now receive the same amount of money for six fillings as for one, so there is no incentive to take on complex cases.
Our dentists are trained at a cost of £175,000 by the NHS, so they should be expected to work within the sector for a number of years. And we need more of them. America has twice as many per head as does Poland - half of whom are here. Britain only has 3.7 dentists per 10,000 people. Even if you find an NHS dentist, it's not all smiles: the cost of a filling has gone up from £14 to £43 in the past few years. The NHS budget has doubled in the past decade while dentistry decayed. The Government has finally started filling the financial gap but, as usual it has gone on bureaucracy.
Healthy teeth used to be seen as a sign of a modern society. Now because of our first-world diets and third-world dental care, we have 19th-century teeth. Britain has to take its teeth seriously again or we will soon be back to wooden dentures."