Saturday, August 13, 2016

Never Mind

Considering all that's happening in the world, it wasn't an unusual opening for a newscast. Lester Holt, the anchor for NBC Nightly News set up a report this way: "Now what might be the most controversial news of the day. It has people divided on social media, some saying 'I told you so.' It's a debate that's dividing the nation." Are we talking politics? Or maybe one of the hot button issues like gay rights or race? No, in a breath of fresh air, Holt's tongue-in-cheek teaser wasn't about any of those; not the election, not social issues, not the Supreme Court.

It was about flossing.

Since 1979, daily flossing has been a recommendation from the Surgeon General, as well as the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Dentists, dental trade groups and manufacturers of floss have also promoted it as part of a regular regime of healthy tooth care. In fact, since dentist Levi Spear Parmly invented flossing in the 1800's, it's effectiveness has become such an article of faith that when Asahel Shurtleff of Boston patented the first floss dispenser in 1874, he noted in his application that "For removing foreign matters lodged between the teeth, dentists recommend the use of thread."

There's just one problem: there's no proof it makes a difference.

In order to be included in the national guidelines, there has to be research that backs up any particular recommendation. In a complete random happenstance, Jeff Donn, a national writer at the Associated Press, decided to do a little digging about that research at the urging of his son's orthodontist. He sent some emails, made some calls, all aimed at trying to find the factual basis for that guideline. Unable to nail it down, he filed a Freedom of Information request with the government. Radio silence. But recently when the updated guidelines came out, Donn noticed that flossing was nowhere to be seen. Seems that when the folks in Washington started looking, they realized that they didn't really have anything solid to back it up. Numerous studies had been done, but none of them actually proved that flossing makes a difference. And so they quietly dropped the recommendation. Oops. Sorry. Our bad.

Is this one of those situations were further study changed what was taken as gospel? After all, there are numerous cases of this reversal of course, where something bad was determined to be good or the other way around. Chocolate, coffee and wine were all things deemed to have detrimental effects at one point. Now all, taken in moderation are considered to have bountiful benefits, from antioxidants to lowering of cholesterol. Conversely, tobacco, mercury and heroin were all lauded at various times as being miracle cures for everything from coughs to syphilis. Now they are right up there with tapeworms, bloodletting and lobotomies, each of which was also considered to be the height of medical sophistication at a certain time.

In the case of flossing, it's not really a reversal: it's just that there is no proof. According to the AP, "the evidence for flossing is 'weak, very unreliable,' of 'very low' quality, and carries 'a moderate to large potential for bias.'" Still, the change carries more than a hint of "Sleeper" in it. In that Woody Allen film from 1973, a man is frozen for 200 years, and when he wakes, requests a breakfast of wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk. "They were thought to be healthy," says one doctor." Another: "You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?" Says the first, "Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true." They both shake their heads: "Incredible," they agree.

Maybe someone someday using the large Hadron collider will determine that flossing really does help or does harm. Until then, score one in the quest for less regulatory overreach. We will continue to debate the right to bear arms and the proper balance between responsible gun ownership and restrictions on purchases of weapons. We will argue over the roll the EPA has and as to how far it should go in insuring clean air and water. But you wanna floss? Go ahead. You don't wanna floss. No problem. It's your call either way. Because at least for now, the government is out your mouth.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is a brusher, not a flosser. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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