My Take

To floss or not to floss? That’s the billion-dollar question the dental industry must answer – truthfully

As new evidence emerges on health guidelines, it’s up to key players to help us separate fact from fiction

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 2:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 2:00am

Ever have the feeling that you have been lied to all your life?

Since a painful visit to the dentist when I was in primary school, I have been reminded all my life that daily flossing is a must to maintain oral hygiene. Now, it turns out, that’s all humbug.

The US government has quietly dropped the flossing recommendation from its Dietary Guidelines for Americans released early this year.

Stick to flossing: Hong Kong dentists insist on practice even as US health authorities admit to no proof of benefits

An investigation by the Associated Press has found scant evidence to justify the US official advocacy of flossing since 1979 – a recommendation that has practically been universally adopted to reduce plaque and gingivitis. Now US health officials admit the effectiveness of the method was never properly researched. Of 25 studies usually cited, the evidence turned out to be “weak, very unreliable”, of “very low” quality, and carried “a moderate to large potential for bias”.

Worse, major companies that sell the oral hygiene product turned out to have funded, designed and/or conducted some of those studies.

I wonder what prompted the enterprising AP reporter to look into the issue. The guy must really hate flossing. Actually, I just flossed while writing this column at home, out of old habit, I guess.

Hong Kong’s health officials, though, are sticking to the old party line that it’s good for the health of your teeth and gums.

US government says medical benefits of flossing unproven

That’s how they often react to new and unexpected medical developments. Sometimes they are even right. Throughout the 2000s, some parents, mostly expatriates, started to question Hong Kong’s use of the combined measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine, which could supposedly cause autism in some children.

That turned out to be a myth, fabricated by the fraudulent research of Andrew Wakefield, who has since lost his medical licence to practise in Britain. Many people, though, still cling on to the myth; the internet is full of sites and forums devoted to conspiracies and cover-ups by world governments, international health bodies and big pharma about the MMR danger. That is one reason why there are periodic outbreaks of measles in some of the world’s most affluent countries when immunisation falls below a critical threshold.

But whether through luck, inertia or expertise, Hong Kong’s health department insisted MMR was safe and continued to administer it. With flossing though, there might be a strong case for revision of guidelines.