Dentists are still an easy target. From movies and television, to magazines and books, dentists are frequently portrayed as either inherently sadistic or greedy and unethical. Unfortunately, these dental accounts are often stereotypically one-sided and misrepresent the facts. The latest inductee to the hit parade is James Frey’s best-selling book ‘A Million Little Pieces.’ Although recently on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Frey was forced to admit to both ‘mistakes and lies’, he did not back down from the ‘recollections’ of his dental experience. The cumulative result of this barrage of misinformation is that people can become frightened of the dentist, and the dental treatment they need.
Even 30 years after its debut, The Marathon Man still congers up fearful memories of Dustin Hoffman’s torture by Laurence Olivier, who plays an evil ex-Nazi who was a concentration camp dentist. Although Hoffman knows nothing about the diamonds in the safe deposit box, Oliver viciously torments Hoffman by performing painful dental procedures without anesthesia and repeatedly asks him: Is it safe? How many people also concluded that going to the dentist was ‘not safe’ after that traumatic scene.
Ten years later, the 1986 version of Little Shop of Horrors had Steve Martin playing the mean, motorcycle riding, nitrous oxide inhaling dentist, Orin Scrivello. When Orin was young, he enjoyed doing cruel things to animals, so his mother thought he should seek a career where his natural tendencies would pay off. By being a dentist, people would actually pay him to cause pain, and as a bonus, he would also “get off” on their misery. Both of these movies create and then solidify the notion that dentists cause pain, not cure it, and that we are malicious opportunists.
It is an unfortunate fact that television has rarely shown dentists in a positive light in news, general programming, or adverting. Unflattering sitcoms and commercials frequently use fear of the dentist and dental treatment in their contrived scenarios. Even more disturbing is when a trusted news program delivers misinformation to its viewers. A case-in-point is the December 16, 1990 edition of 60 minutes. When I remind you of the title of the segment, ‘Is there poison in your mouth?’ you can easily tell the direction this ‘news’ program was going. This is an excerpt from the program hosted by Morely Safer:
The question is: ‘Is there poison in your mouth?’ The American Dental Association says there isn’t. But some of its members say there is, and have stopped using it. ‘It’ is a filling, a silver amalgam filling, the dentists’ filling of choice for more than a century. More than a hundred million of them were put into American mouths last year. What you probably don’t know is that these so-called silver fillings are 50% mercury, and mercury is more poisonous than lead or even arsenic.
Even though 60 minutes host Morely Safer admits that ‘No specific disease has yet been directly linked to mercury from fillings,?’ he goes on to suggest that mercury vapor has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Arthritis and Colitis, and that mercury in the workplace ‘has produced kidney damage, brain damage, birth defects, and symptoms of multiple sclerosis.’ The rest of the segment involves a Canadian dentist, Dr. Murray Vimy, opposed to the ‘danger’ of amalgam fillings, and an American dentist, Dr. Heber Simmons, a spokesman from the American Dental Association, who knows that amalgam fillings are harmless. Safer grills Dr. Simmons for the remainder of the segment, and also shows examples of people who were miraculously cured when they had their amalgam fillings removed.