The risks of stained teeth and stinky breath seem minor in comparison to the health consequences and the visual aesthetic problems that result from smoking.
Healthcare providers, private-practice doctors and now even insurance companies search for means to educate the public on the gravity of health implications stemming from the habit.
"A lot of New Yorkers smoke. What many don't consider and what often doesn't get discussed in the media are the long-term effects that smoking has on oral health," comments Dr. Patricia Sukmonowski, a private-practice periodontist with offices in Central Park South.
Besides oral cancer, smoking is a major risk factor for what could be called a "silent killer," periodontal disease. A chronic bacterial inflammatory disease, periodontal disease has links to systemic health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and pre-term low birth weight babies to name a few.
"75% of the population has some form of periodontal disease which goes largely undetected because it's insipient. Smokers however are 2 to 3 times as likely to develop clinically detectable periodontal disease plus they tend to experience it more severely," says Dr. Sukmonowski.
Depending on the quantity and length of time a person has smoked, mild to severe changes can be seen clinically and through their x-rays. A smoker's mouth apart from the obvious staining will have leather-like gums with noticeable differences in color. Also, nicotine affects the integrity of the bone supporting the teeth. Varying degrees of bone loss may occur with tooth loss whereby alarm signals such as spaces increasing between the teeth and loosening of the teeth occur.
"Regularly I see patients who are no longer happy with the look of their smile. With some, bone and tooth loss has impaired their speech and functional abilities," comments Sukmonowski. "One of my patients quit smoking cold turkey after 25 years after being informed and shown the ravages of his habit. In order to save his remaining teeth he became a "converted" nonsmoker."
Dr. Sukmonowski hopes that before her patients come to her needing treatments like periodontal therapy, plastic surgery procedures and/or titanium implants to replace missing teeth that consumers would grasp the numerous health risks relevant to smoking and decide to take a proactive stance with their oral health.
"Prevention continues to the best healthcare around. Making regular dental appointments, smoker or not, is necessary. Each dental visit should offer a thorough review of medical history with clinical periodontal and x-ray exams. Daily flossing and brushing to remove the bacteria called plaque that causes periodontal disease is also essential," concludes Dr. Sukmonowski. "Where applicable, I would also recommend a smoking cessation program."
Abstinence rather than prevention proves to be the only means of avoiding the ongoing health problems associated with smoking and to literally save face in the process.