PARKERSBURG - Officials with the local health department are backing a new bill in the state House of Delegates to limit food stamp benefits to no longer allow the purchase of soft drinks with the funds.
"SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and pop has absolutely no nutritional value, whatsoever," said Dick Wittberg, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department. "I'm not trying to be the food police and tell people what they can and cannot eat and drink, but it's not right as a society for taxes to pay for people to harm their health."
The legislation was introduced and co-sponsored by Delegates John Ellem, R-Wood, and Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, in February in an effort to steer this spending of taxpayer funds toward healthier choices.
"I would love to see this bill happen," said Mary Beth Shea, oral health coordinator for the MOVHD. "SNAP should be for nutritional value foods, not for things that will literally rot your teeth and cause more health problems in the long run."
Wittberg said soft drinks have acids that damage tooth enamel, but one of the largest health issues in Appalachia and West Virginia is a condition known as "Mountain Dew Mouth."
"West Virginia has the highest consumption of Mountain Dew in the entire country," he said. "Because of that, we also have the highest number of adults with oral health problems from the citric acid."
Mountain Dew and other light-colored beverages contain citric acid, which is 5 percent more acidic than phosphoric acid-based dark soft drinks, such as Coke and Pepsi, Wittberg said. This acid tends to sit on the teeth and eats away at enamel as people drink their pop throughout the day.
Not only does citric acid soften and remove enamel, but the sugar in the drinks and bacteria in the mouth cause the teeth to rot through cavities, health officials said.
Shea said local dentists through the Mission of Mercy clinic in 2009 began to open her eyes to the problem. She now sees it daily through the department's adult dental screening and referral program.
"We have people who come in all of the time and say they drink six or more Mountain Dews a day and their teeth are in various stages of decay," she said. "Without enamel, teeth are far more prone to decay, cavities and rot.
"Once they get so bad, the only thing we can do is remove the teeth," Shea said.
Wittberg said more than 24 percent of the adults in West Virginia have no teeth, which is the highest in the nation. Health officials believe it is because people here tend to drink citric acid-based drinks throughout the day without knowing the harm they are causing their teeth and bodies, he said.
"I'm not saying people shouldn't drink these drinks, but having water every once in a while to rinse the citric acid would help," Wittberg said. "These bad habits we have of sipping these pops all day long is more prevalent in Appalachia and by having this bill pass into law, it would help us educate people as to how to help themselves."