Meth users force more dental spending at prisons, jails

CLEVELAND - The rotting, brittle teeth of methamphetamine users are eating away at the budgets of Ohio's prisons and jails, as officials are forced to spend more taxpayer dollars on dental work.

Dentists call the erosion of tooth enamel and blackening of gum lines that come with using the drug "meth mouth."

The condition is mostly responsible for the doubling of dental costs at Ohio's county jails in the past five years, said Robert Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association.

Since 2001, dental care spending at state prisons has jumped 20 percent to nearly $3.8 million. Prisons officials blame most of the rise on inflation and increases in dentists' salaries, but said meth mouth will continue to hike costs. They estimate that as many as 10 new inmates with meth mouth enter the prison system each week.

Dr. Denver Jenkins, a suburban Cleveland dentist who performs work on inmates, said he had to pull eight teeth last fall from a 25-year-old prisoner with meth mouth, who now has to get dentures.

"It's something I've grown accustomed to seeing," he said.

The chemicals mixed to make methamphetamine can include over-the-counter cold medicine, fertilizer, battery acid and hydrogen peroxide. Together, the substances decrease a user's saliva, which usually acts to clear food from the teeth and neutralize acids.

Meth users also might neglect their dental health or drink high-sugar beverages to alleviate dry mouth.

The prison system lowers costs by sending inmates to its own dental lab, but county jails don't have the same resources.

"Someone has to pay for their new dentures," said Dr. Kenneth Jones, a Mansfield dentist who has researched the problem, "and it's not going to be them."

A set of dentures can cost as much as $8,000.

In a report last year to the American Dental Association, Jones said authorities have estimated that more than 15 percent of prisoners nationwide have meth mouth.

The number of arrests for methamphetamine in Ohio have increased in recent years, with drug agents seizing nearly four times as many meth labs last year than the 92 seized in 2001.

"We've pulled more teeth around here than ever before," said Kenneth Kochevar, administrator of the Cuyahoga County Jail. "We have heard about the plague of meth mouth for a few years, but we've only seen it recently."

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