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The Swedish media and the 'Tooth Fairy State'

The Swedish media and the 'Tooth Fairy State'

Published: 25 May 2012 14:15 GMT+02:00
Updated: 25 May 2012 14:15 GMT+02:00

A recent report admonishing Swedes about their dental hygiene prompts Swedish journalist and columnist Ola Tedin to reflect on how a sometimes uncritical media appears to serve the interests of the Swedish state.

“Nine out of ten Swedes don't brush their teeth properly.”

The lead item on national public radio’s morning news on a recent Saturday focused on a perceived lack of awareness on the part of Swedes for their dental hygiene.

Apparently a survey had found that Swedes don't put enough toothpaste on the brush, brush for too short a time, and insist on spitting out the suds too soon, depriving our teeth of much needed fluoride.

The tone could not be misunderstood.

In apparent awe, the producer of the programme let a dental hygiene expert from some institute go on lecturing about correct brushing behavior for a good two minutes, an eternity for prime-time radio.

The lack of follow up questions or the slightest hint of scepticism brought back memories of educational radio programmes from my school days as a young person growing up in Sweden and the campy news reels from the forties and fifties.

Sweden has a plethora of state-sponsored institutions, organizations and authorities bent on educating the populace towards a perceived better moral, physical and economic behavior.

The current centre-right Alliance government has trimmed at the edges of this massive bureaucracy, but has showed itself to be surprisingly tolerant.

Thus we are still showered with advice, guidelines and alarmist messages concerning more or less every angle of modern life.

Or rather, as the case is with the tooth brushing, well-intentioned advice that appears to be somewhat out of date.

After all, how can one fit the government recommended two centimeters of toothpaste upon the minimal head of the electric tooth brushes used by an increasingly large portion of the Swedish population?

According to organizational theory, if an organization is formed for a specific purpose, it will do everything it can to continue to fulfill that purpose.

Furthermore, the organization will likely try to maximizing the delivery of whatever is perceived to be the primary goal or intentions of the organization's backers.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, is a perfect example, but Sweden's National Institute of Public Health (Folkhälsoinstitutet) also fits the model.

By producing reports that raise awareness or concerns about public health, this agency helps justify its own existence.

And I'm fine with that.

After all, politics is the art of making impressions and forming opinions. And Swedish politicians in general, and social democratic ones in particular, excel in using the government apparatus to this end.

But I'd be more comfortable if some of this steady output would be a bit more critically treated in the media.

After all, these are the same journalists who take great professional pride in treating with the utmost scepticism a press release or some new report from any commercial entity.

And rightly so.

But the big mystery is why similar output is treated differently just because it is from a government organization.

As a long-time journalist, I know for a fact that media in Sweden is fiercely independent from government meddling, even at the state-funded public service media outlets Sveriges Television (SVT) and Sveriges Radio (SR).

And yet, take any official report or scientific survey that points to some perceived flaw in our lifestyle and you can be sure that it will be treated with a Pollyannaish lack of the exact same critical reporting that is assumed to be of great importance to help readers, viewers, and listeners to form informed and skeptical opinions on things affecting everyday life in other areas.

It's not hard to imagine the media’s response if Colgate put out a press release telling the general public to use at least two centimeters of toothpaste twice every day.

Most likely total silence. Or, at best, ridicule.

Yet when an academy in Gothenburg says to do the same thing, it gets three minutes of prime-time on national radio.

No doubt this Tooth Fairy State has many Merry Little Helpers.

Ola Tedin has written opinion journalism for several Swedish dailies, including Sydsvenskan and Expressen. He was the op-ed editor of the Ystad Allehanda newspaper from 2001 to 2011.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

17:03 May 25, 2012 by EP
Actually I was quite shocked how many Swedes have bad teeth ... must be all the sweets they eat ...
17:06 May 25, 2012 by autonomy
Nice to see a good quality article on TL. Would appreciate this kind of scrutiny on issues a little more sensitive than (even the most sensitive of) teeth.
18:14 May 25, 2012 by Rap43
Autonomy... This article is not, in fact, about teeth. It is actually about the integrity of Sweden's free press.

Quite an important topic in any democratic state I think.
22:13 May 25, 2012 by dizzymoe33
When I was in school in the 70's the school would have a dentist come into the classroom with some assistants and teach us about proper tooth brushing habits and care. Also when you are going to see your dentist they are suppose to be reminding you on how to brush and care for your teeth. I am in my 40's and from time to time the dentist still asks me about my habits for brushing my teeth.

It is something that is very important-good oral health can prevent plaque building up in the arteries and causing heart attacks and also helps if you have diabetes to have healthy teeth.

Other things are important to know about eating things with sugar and acids like fruit juices. If you don't brush your teeth after consuming these foods/drinks then the acid is what eats away at the tooth enamel causing decay. You shouldn't but your baby to bed with a bottle and if you must do it then only put water in it no juices or milk.
22:49 May 25, 2012 by johan rebel
Hear, hear!

By the way, do NOT brush your teeth straight after drinking juice or soda pops, as the acid in them softens the enamel of your teeth. Rinse with water after drinking something acidic and wait 20-30 mins before brushing. Brushing too soon will wear off the softened enamel.
06:52 May 26, 2012 by RobinHood
Too right Ola. Various institutions in Sweden, public and private, publish unbelievable statistics that achieve nothing other than support the need for that particular institution to exist. The Swedish media swallows it hook, line and sinker, without challenge.

Last month we heard that one in ten Swedish teenage girls had been raped. Last year, that one in ten Swedish children live in poverty. Does anybody who lives here believe those statistics are actually true? Or anywhere close to being true? Wake up Sweden's media, someone is misinforming you, and you are misinforming the public.
08:19 May 26, 2012 by calebian22
Great opinion piece. I am not sure it is in fact a mystery however. In my experience, after sitting in union meetings and company q & a's, when someone in a position of authority in Sweden makes an assertion, follow up questions or calls for further clarification are sorely lacking. After the meetings, small groups with discuss how that sucked or how unfair or ridiculous the outcome was, but no one calls "bs" when they have the chance. I can't imagine that journalists in Sweden are so different from the non-confrontational behavior that I have witnessed.
11:18 May 26, 2012 by SimonDMontfort
Well said Mr Tedin!

One of the things that turns me off about Sweden is how the overweening 'state' seems to interfere so much in everyday life - when in fact most individuals can make their own informed choices.

Using the dental analogy, I would consult my own dentist about such matters: not listen to some generalised, 'government recommended' advice.

The 'state' should get off people's backs
13:12 May 26, 2012 by Marc the Texan
Not only that. That public health information is bad for your health. Fluoride is toxic poison. A little fluoride hardens your teeth but also corrodes them. Enough fluoride and you will suffer fluorosis of the teeth and skeleton when you're older. Not to mention the fluoride will displace iodine in your thyroid, and probably make make you hypothyroidic eventually. Fuoride is nothing more than slow poison snake oil. Do your own due diligence before you say I'm wrong. See the mile high stack of evidence provided by fluoride skeptics. The case for fluoride is almost nonexistent but popularized by toothpaste manufacturers to sell you a toxin you couldn't buy unless you buy it through them. Most dentists never even question it. They just accept it as fact.

Get a fluoride free toothpaste. Want to instantly neutralize the acids at work on your teeth. Swish some baking soda and water in your mouth.
17:46 May 26, 2012 by libertarianism
Great topic and execution, deceptively simple example with complex implications. Agree with what others have said…

Re: "…depriving our teeth of much needed fluoride." To my understanding, water in Sweden can contain high levels of fluorine naturally, perhaps dangerously high, especially for children and individuals with a disposition to cancer, for example. (www.svd.se/nyheter/inrikes/fluor-i-dricksvattnet-kan-ge-cancer_498843.svd).

Issues should be discussed in a holistic manner. Lay out the spectrum of pros/cons according to age, sex, geography, genes, etc, and let individuals decide for themselves and/or consult with a dentist/doctor whom they choose, whom they trust, and who actually cares about them. I want my dentist/doctor (and journalists) to be inquisitive lifelong learners, not someone who parrots state "experts" unquestioningly.

Re: "…the big mystery is why similar output is treated differently just because it is from a government organization." To my understanding, a much higher percentage of Swedish journalists (as compared with the population as a whole) identify with the political left.

Perhaps these journalists then are committed to a particular narrative, and thus avoid behavior that contradicts that narrative, questions its legitimacy or infallibility-perhaps Jante Law plays into this as well. I suspect "Question Authority!" isn't a popular admonition in Sweden. Consequently, many individuals suffer and pay with their lives or life quality.
08:51 May 28, 2012 by scandiland
I very much enjoyed reading this article. It's the "two centimeter" toothpaste bit that gets me - I think that's a waste of toothpaste, personally I only use a little bit of the stuff, the size of a pea or so.

Surely people don't have to be told how much toothpaste to use?
09:57 May 28, 2012 by libertarianism
Re 10, I understood the SvD article I referenced to say there is fluorine (fluor) in the water naturally, but perhaps the correct statement should have been that there is fluoride (fluorid) in the water. Perhaps the SvD journalist misunderstood these terms, or I have confused them or their use in Swedish.
12:26 May 28, 2012 by autonomy
#3: Good grief, Charlie Brown! Yes, you could assume that I have managed to not only read but also comment on the article while completely missing the point, or on the other hand you could assume that I had the requisite number of brain cells in working order to be able to actually make a point. And the point was: if you bother to write an article on the response of the press to governmental propaganda, why choose to highlight a lack of journalistic objectivity on a non-controversial topic like dental hygiene when there are so many more controversial topics that the media fails to properly debate, taking their lead from political taboos?

#10: Totally agree that the majority of Swedish journalists are not only committed to a particular narrative, but also that this narrative is not simply on of the political left per se, but the specific agenda of Swedish left-wingers from about 40 years ago. It is a strange and murky form of socialism which marginalises merit in favour of fake equality. Politicians who question this narrative commit political suicide here, but it seems that the media is running equally scared.
12:24 May 29, 2012 by mnphoto87
Corporate message states low levels of pineal gland fluoridation has been linked to greater levels of democracy and improved performance in Eurovision song contests. Clearly, humans evolved to require not 1, but 2 cm of fluoride toothpaste for optimum physical and mental capacity.
11:45 May 30, 2012 by towns
Probably one of the best articles (both in how it's written and content) on the Local in a while.

Thanks Ola Tedin!
18:57 May 31, 2012 by Token-not-found
Ok so not brushing your teeth properly is a nation-wide tragedy that needs to be fix, yet quadrupling your violent crime and rape by allowing mass third world immigration is a O.K.

Swedish logic.
12:29 June 1, 2012 by karex
Excellent well-written article.
13:47 June 4, 2012 by Frank Arbach
Halitosis seems to be de rigeur among Swedes.

I would have thought another warning about dental hygiene in Sweden would not be amiss
22:46 June 21, 2012 by trazan
Whining article wihtout content.
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