Stepping in chewing gum

Wrigley has found itself in the middle of a disagreement over whether children should be allowed to masticate in class. Dentists say yes; teachers say no.

The chewing gum giant recently lent its support to research by York Health Economics and Peninsula Dental School, which found the NHS would save an annual £8.2m if all 12-year-olds (a common age group for dental study) chowed down on sugar-free gum three times a day.

How toothsome, said dentists, and gave a thumbs-up to the report, which appeared in the British Dental Journal, oral hygiene’s equivalent of The Grocer. It had long been understood that sugar-less chewing promoted saliva that flushes away harmful acids, and now here was some new data to back it up.

It’s easy to be cynical about the involvement of Wrigley, admits celebrity mouth-mechanic Dr Ben Atkins – Northern readers may have seen him on local TV news – but the numbers look solid and anything that gets kids fighting plaque is all right by him, especially if it saves our health service a “realistic” amount of cash (equivalent to about 364,000 dental check-ups).

But now teachers are putting down their collective feet, insisting discarded gum is much too costly to clean up at a time when many schools are grubbing for every penny.

“Our concern for school leaders is the impact of chewing gum on school environments,” says a spokesman for the headteachers’ union NAHT.

“Heads have a duty to ensure schools are safe and clean for all children to enjoy, and currently spend considerable amounts of time and money cleaning school grounds and equipment. We would not like to see additional costs incurred by schools at a time when budgets are at breaking point.”

That’s the official line, at least. The view from the classroom is different. A London secondary school teacher who wishes to remain anonymous says gum is the least of her worries. Pupils aren’t supposed to chew but they do anyway, and she and her colleagues usually turn a blind eye. Sometimes, the kids are made to spit the gum out – but then they just pop more in, having plenty to go round.

Sure, discarded gum is unsightly and sticks to chairs, tables and radiators, but it isn’t “the end of the world” – and if schools were honest, they’d admit to not caring that much.

Easy public health wins are difficult to come by; let’s try to make the most of this one.