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British Teeth Aren’t That Bad (American Teeth Are Far Worse)

Do the British really have unusually bad teeth? Are they any worse than American chompers?

Here’s one statistic: In the past year, about seven in 10 people in Britain visited a dentist, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Only four in 10 Americans did the same.

Americans might say Brits are at the dentist so often because they have to spend more time dealing with their crooked, decaying teeth — those extra visits are proof the damaged teeth of serial tea drinkers need more regular attention. Not necessarily. If you’re a proud Brit, more frequent dental visits may simply be proof that you take better care of your teeth.

There’s a better way to settle this: data on tooth decay (that stuff that you get after plaque builds up and before you enter a world of pain).  According to the OECD (so we’re only considering developed countries), 28 percent of adults in England have tooth decay. Compare that to a jaw-dropping 92 percent of adults in America with tooth decay. The British should be smiling. 1-0 U.K.

A lower amount of decay means you’re more likely to keep your teeth. Sure enough, British mouths, on average, have almost a whole extra tooth compared to U.S. mouths. (I know, but you should wait until you get home to count them.) 2-0 U.K.

Dental historians, if we could find any, would say these results aren’t surprising. In the U.K. the National Health Service pays for “all clinically necessary treatment” and even non-necessary treatment is heavily subsidized. And America’s dental problem started early: George Washington had just one tooth by the time he became president.

One final note. This trans-Atlantic spat obscures the real country of dental interest: Japan. So strong is the obsession with dental hygiene that the Japanese not only visit their dentists more than people in any other country (3.2 times every year), but they’ve also filmed and uploaded thousands of videos about hamigaki, the art of teaching children how to brush.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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