Social inequalities pose mouth cancer risk

Nov. 3, 2010
New research has revealed that an individual's social background could heighten their risk of mouth cancer.

New research has revealed that an individual's social background could heighten their risk of mouth cancer.

Speaking at the launch of Mouth Cancer Action Month 2010, at the House of Commons this week, clinical senior lecturer in dental public health at the University of Glasgow, Dr David Conway, highlighted that those with a "low social economic status" were faced with significantly increased risks of developing the disease.

Drawing on his recent, award winning research, 'Socioeconomic Risk Factors Associated with Upper Aerodigestive Tract Cancer', Dr Conway explained that socio-economic inequalities had proven to be an independent risk factor.

The study measured socio-economic groups by education, occupation and income, and found that those with lower levels of formal education, lower incomes and unemployment history were more at risk.

Dr Conway said: "A low occupational social class such as manual workers had 50 percent increased risk in relation to non-manual workers. Unemployment experience confirmed a 60 percent increased risk, while lower education attainment showed a twofold risk."

However, Dr Conway emphasised that when these figures were adjusted to consider smoking, alcohol and poor diet, all increases were diminished except for education.

"Education was the strongest socio-economic factor, showing a 30 percent increased risk, independent of lifestyle factors."

This increase can be explained as low education can influence positions within society and social networks, which in turn can impact on access to health care and determine decision making behaviours.

Addressing a room full of oral health professionals, MPs, members of the House of Lords and past mouth cancer patients, Dr Conway called for a change to be made and urged governing bodies to help the disadvantaged who are at a greater risk of mouth cancer.

Dr Conway said: "We need to look at the bigger picture. Public health and prevention programmes need to take into account socio-economic circumstances. Health services need to further shift from treatment to prevention. Understanding and tackling social inequalities are key."

Concluding his speech with a quote from George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, Dr Conway said: "Economic injustice will stop the moment we want it to stop and no sooner, and if we genuinely want it to stop the method adopted hardly matters."

The Mouth Cancer Action Month campaign runs throughout November and aims to raise awareness of mouth cancer among the public.

It is organised by the British Dental Health Foundation, who is hoping this year's tagline 'If in doubt, get checked out' will encourage people to visit their dentist or doctor for regular check-ups.

Chief Executive of the Foundation, Dr Carter said: "The unfortunate fact is that one person dies every five hours from mouth cancer in the UK. To improve survival rates, early diagnosis is key. Yet, a lot of people still do not know about mouth cancer. This campaign will inform the public of the risks so they can take the necessary action to protect themselves from this devastating disease."

Tobacco is still the main risk factor, but those who smoke and drink to excess are up to 30 times more likely to be diagnosed.

Other key risk factors include an unhealthy diet and the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Around a third of cases thought to be linked to an unhealthy diet. The Foundation recommends that people ensure they eat a balanced diet, with plenty of fruit and vegetables. There is also increasing evidence that suggests Omega 3, found in fish and eggs, can help lower risks of mouth cancer, as can foods high in fibre such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, nuts and seeds.

HPV is transmitted via oral sex, and experts now suggest it may soon rival tobacco and alcohol as the key risk factor. People with multiple sexual partners are most at risk.

Early symptoms of mouth cancer include red or white patches, unusual lumps or swelling in the mouth and a non-healing mouth ulcer that has been present for three weeks or more.

For anyone with any concerns about their oral health, the National Dental Helpline (0845 063 1188) is available to offer advice and support. The helpline is run by fully qualified dental experts and is open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. The helpline can also be contacted through e-mail at [email protected].

For further information, please contact the Foundation's Press Office on [email protected] or 01788 539 792.

This is the official UK Mouth Cancer Action Month campaign which is conducted with advice from and supported by the Department of Health and the British Dental Association.

The campaign is also supported by Denplan and a number of other professional and commercial partners
Mouth cancer is twice more common in men than in women, though an increasing number of women are being diagnosed with the disease. Previously, the disease has been five times more common in men than women.

Age is another factor, with people over the age of 40 more likely to be diagnosed, though more young people are now being affected than previously.

The charity strongly advises people of all ages to check their mouths and have regular dental appointments.

Initial signs of the disease include a non-healing mouth ulcer, a red or white patch in the mouth, or unusual lumps or swelling in the mouth.

The British Dental Health Foundation is the UK's leading oral health charity, with a 39-year track record of providing public information and influencing government policy. It maintains a free consumer advice service, an impartial and objective product accreditation scheme, publishes and distributes a wide range of literature for the profession and consumers, and runs National Smile Month each May, to promote greater awareness of the benefits of better oral health. The Foundation also organises Mouth Cancer Action Month, which runs throughout November each year.

The Dental Helpline, which offers free impartial advice to consumers, can be contacted on 0845 063 1188 between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday. Alternatively, they can be contacted by email on [email protected].

A series of 'Tell Me About ...' leaflets covering topics such as mouth cancer, smoking, and diet are also available.

The Foundation's website can be found at The Foundation also hosts two other Web sites: one for Mouth Cancer Action Month ( and other for National Smile Month (

Please visit the Foundation's Twitter accounts: dentalhealthorg, mouthcancerorg and smilemonth and add our Facebook fan-page: 'British Dental Health Foundation'

British Dental Health Foundation, Smile House 2 East Union Street, Rugby, . CV22 6AJ United Kingdom