These days people in North America mostly look almost the same as people here in Britain. Once there were subtle differences in how people dressed, but these are fading quickly as popular culture becomes more and more globalised. There are more overweight people across the Atlantic, but even that difference is disappearing as Americans become more conscious of health issues.
But a difference quickly appears when people smile. For one thing, Americans smile much more often than we British do. Whenever you meet someone in the States you see a flash of white teeth. Not so here in England: a blank expression or a frown is more common. And when you do see a rare smile, it is usually not even and white but crooked and yellow. Even our celebrities have less than perfect smiles:
Yes, the biggest difference between the British and the Americans is in their teeth.
In the 1st century AD the Roman author Martial wrote :
Thais has black, Laecania white teeth; what is the reason? Thais has her own, Laecania bought ones.
We can see the same contrast today, at least if we replace “black” with “yellow” or “grey”, with Thais being typical of us British and Laecania of Americans. And the reason is the same: the American Laecanias are paying good money for their good teeth.
This is surely something to do with the British mentality of the last half century. We have been brought up to expect the government to look after our health, including our teeth, through the National Health Service. We resent having to pay £16.50 for a check-up and £45.60 for a whole course of fillings . The private dental sector has been growing rapidly over the last few decades, now treating 27% of adults , but the standards of treatment offered by the NHS are still considered the rule.
There are strict limits to which dental treatments are available on the NHS :
Dental implants and orthodontic treatment, such as braces, are available on the NHS, but only if there’s a medical need for the treatment. …
NHS dental treatment does not include cosmetic treatments that are not clinically necessary, such as teeth whitening or veneers.
In addition, NHS fillings and crowns are metallic, not white like real teeth. So, while the health of British teeth has improved rapidly over the last few decades, their outward appearance has not. If anything appearances have got worse, because not so many people have lost all their teeth and so are wearing full dentures.
By contrast, most North Americans expect to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on dental treatment. Total dental care expenditure in the USA is around $100 billion per year, or more than $300 per person per year. A comparable figure for the UK, including NHS expenditure, is around £7 billion or a little over £100 per person per year. But NHS patients in England only pay only about £600 million, so less than £20 per year for each person not using a private dentist .
So the Americans are copying Laecania by buying teeth. What are they spending their money on? Fillings and crowns are of course white by default. Even slightly crooked teeth are corrected with braces and other orthodontic procedures. But the main difference from British dentistry is surely in the regular use of two kinds of procedure, dental implants and teeth whitening.
All of these procedures are available here in the UK. And they don’t have to cost a fortune. Follow the links below to find out more about what can be done.
- Dental implants (in preparation)
- Teeth whitening (in preparation)
Some people might wonder whether it is right to spend money on cosmetic dentistry of this kind. Of course it would not be good to put this above the necessities of family life, or above generous giving to good causes. Nor should anyone go into significant debt just to get their teeth looking nice. Also it is not good to be obsessive about these matters. But surely it is just as valid a choice for people who do have some spare money as spending that cash on luxury holidays or cars.
In addition, cosmetic dentistry can be really useful for some people. It can greatly boost their self-esteem. It can help them to get jobs for which appearances are important. Also it can put a smile in their heart and give them the confidence to express it with their lips. A few more smiles all round will help to make Britain a better place! Epigrams Book 5, XLIII, translation from Bohn’s Classical Library (1897) adapted by Roger Pearse.  These are the current NHS dental charges in England. Under 18’s and some others pay nothing.  Figure for 2009, for adults with some teeth, from the official Adult Dental Health Survey 2009.  NHS web page Which dental treatments are available on the NHS?  National Dental Care Expenditures 1960-2007 (USA); Total spending on UK dentistry increased by 4% to £6965 million and NHS Dental Statistics for England: 2009/10 (UK).