By LES BLUMENTHAL
July 30, 2007
And as users of the drug fill county jails and state prisons, corrections officials say the cost of treating them is skyrocketing.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced legislation to help ease the strain on prison dental budgets by providing federal grants and to launch an education program designed to warn young people about the dangers of meth by focusing on the severe dental problems the drug can cause.
"It's been one of the worst headaches and nightmares over the past 10 years," said Dr. Pat Murphy, a dentist at the Washington state reformatory in Monroe who by his own estimate has treated more than 2,000 cases of meth mouth. "Our resources are tremendously strapped."
Of the $12 million a year the Washington state Department of Corrections spends on dental care for inmates, more than 40 percent goes toward patients with meth mouth.
In Minnesota, meth mouth has resulted in roughly a doubling of the cost of inmate dental care, Dr. Robert Brandjord, a former president of the American Dental Association, said of his home state.
"Meth is a chemical cocktail that literally rots your teeth away," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., co-chairman of the House "Meth Caucus."
Meth use can cause a string of dental conditions that can force addicts in their late teens and early 20s to need dentures.
The drug dries up saliva, which is critical to fending off bacteria and tooth decay. People who are high -- or "tweaking" -- might not eat for three or four days and eventually can develop a sugar craving that can result in them drinking dozens of soft drinks in a day. Meth abusers can also have uncontrolled muscle actions that can result in them grinding or clenching their teeth.
Teeth can be reduced to blackened stubs in less than a year.
The lawmakers introduced two bills. One would provide grants to state and local correctional facilities that have been disproportionately affected by meth mouth, along with creating dental programs to help reduce rates of inmate recidivism.
The other bill would provide for enhanced research into the causes, effects and treatment of meth mouth, along with providing grants to elementary and secondary schools to teach about the oral health risks associated with meth use.
"Little is known about the causes of meth mouth because few studies have been conducted about its prevalence, its physical effects or the cost to the public," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., a co-founder of the House Meth Caucus.
"It's clear that by educating people about the dangers of meth mouth and the health risks associated with the drug, we can help prevent first-time meth use and possible addiction."
The caucus has previously focused its efforts on law enforcement when it came to meth, but is now starting to focus on prevention and education, Larsen said. Larsen said he and the other sponsors had yet to attach a price tag to the bills.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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