Dentists should do more to help patients kick tobacco habit

July 7, 2005
Journal editor says dentists should improve their knowledge of smoking-cessation practices and work with patients to end tobacco use.

Dentists should improve their knowledge of smoking-cessation practices and play a more central role in helping tobacco-using patients kick the habit, says Michael Glick, D.M.D., editor of The Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA).

"Embracing smoking-cessation activities as part of unabridged oral health care no longer should be a choice" for dentists as health care providers, Dr. Glick writes in an editorial in the publication's August issue.

The editor's comments relate to two studies also published in the August JADA: one on the value of the dental-office health history form in identifying adolescent smokers; the other on the general dentist's role in smoking cessation and diabetes management.

A research team led by Deborah Hennrikus, Ph.D., School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, found that adolescents routinely underreport tobacco use on health history forms that ask them simply whether they use tobacco.

Researchers note that adolescents who smoke socially or experimentally may not see themselves as smokers. A better question, they say, would be to ask whether tobacco has been used within the past 30 days.

In other cases, researchers found adolescents may be reluctant to disclose their tobacco use. And in still other cases, a parent unaware that the adolescent smokes completes the form. The JADA study recommends that the adolescent, not the parent, complete the behavioral section of the health history form and that this be done privately.

In a second study published in August JADA, researcher Carol Kunzel, Ph.D., and her associates at New York's Columbia University School of Dental and Oral Surgery found that many dentists believe they lack the information and know-how to help patients stop smoking.

Many also believe that such activities are "peripheral to their role as caregivers" and that their colleagues and patients do not expect them to perform such functions.

By getting the information they need and altering their attitudes toward patient care, say Dr. Kunzel and colleagues, dentists can "provide better oral health care, enhance the outcome of therapeutic procedures and play an increasingly important role in promoting the general health of patients."

In his editorial, Dr. Glick reports that cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke accounted for about 438,000 deaths each year between 1997 and 2001, and that it will kill as many as 450 million people worldwide over the next 50 years.

Dentists owe it to their patients to become more involved, says the JADA editor.