Smokey Smiles

Question: I’m in a great relationship with a boy here on campus. He’s supportive, smart, funny, and really good-looking. There’s just one thing about him that bothers me. I know it’s shallow, but his teeth are really yellow! I think it might be because he smokes cigarettes, because his breath is usually okay and I don’t think he skips out on brushing his teeth. I want him to try one of those teeth-whitening programs or something, but I’m not sure how to approach him about the issue. Any advice?

Answer: Your issue with your boyfriend’s dental hygiene, unfortunately, probably has roots in the much more serious issue that you mention in passing. You’re absolutely right that smoking can discolor teeth. Experts say teeth start yellowing early and change quickly–it doesn’t take a lifetime of smoking for this problem to show up (in fact, a lifetime of smoking will make things worse: long-term smokers report brown teeth).

And this may not be the worst problem developing in your boyfriend’s mouth. He’s increasing his danger of being one of the 43,000 Americans diagnosed every year with mouth cancer. Mouth cancer is just one of many cancers that smoking increases your risk for: 30% of all cancer deaths (and 80% of all lung cancer deaths) in the United States are attributable to cigarette smoking. And cigarettes eventually kill roughly half of the people who smoke them, one way or the other. Those are grim statistics for your boyfriend–and for you, if you plan to be with him long-term.

While you may need to reexamine your priorities a bit, it probably isn’t a bad time to mention your boyfriend’s teeth to him. Perhaps immediate cosmetic concerns will help him see the danger of his habit in a way that long-term medical concerns have not. You should urge your boyfriend to quit smoking and support his efforts to do so. There are alternatives to smoking, including e-cigarettes (though the jury is still out on some potential e-cig dangers, e-cigarette experts generally believe vaping to be significantly safer than cigarettes). Better still, there are options for medical and therapeutic help available through your university and your boyfriend’s own doctors. Quitting is something your boyfriend can–and should–do.

Of course, quitting cigarettes will not magically undo the damage your boyfriend did to his teeth. But it will prevent things from getting worse and reduce his risk of mouth cancer. And, while it should not be your main concern here, you will be happy to know that there are solutions for yellowed teeth. Dental experts say that many teeth-whitening options really do work, though they suggest that you rely on trusted brands and turn to procedures performed by dentists for extreme cases.

“I wrote a song about dental floss, but did anyone’s teeth get cleaner?” — Frank Zappa