Irish famine victims’ heavy smoking led to dental decay

Irish famine
Famine statue in Dublin

Irish famine victims were heavy smokers which caused badly rotten teeth, according to new research from Ireland.

The study—by a team from the University of Otago and Queen’s University Belfast and published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology—was conducted on the teeth of 363 adult victims of the Great Irish Potato Famine, who died in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse between 1847 and 1851. Their remains were discovered in an unmarked mass burial ground by archaeologists in 2005.

The findings show poor oral health among most of the famine victims, with 80 per cent of the adult remains showing evidence of tooth decay, and over half missing teeth. There were also revealing signs of pipe smoking marks on their teeth.

This is the first study to explore the relationship between smoking and oral health in an archaeological sample of a historical population.

Professor Eileen Murphy explained this research is important as the current clinical understanding of how smoking affects oral health is not fully understood, and this study adds to that discourse.

Dr Jonny Geber added: “We believe the bad condition of the teeth studied was because of widespread pipe smoking in both men and women, rather than their diet of potatoes and milk, as a comparative study of the 20th century population on the same diet didn’t have the same evidence of poor oral health.

“Our study shows that it is not only diet that affects your oral health, but many other factors—and we believe that smoking was a major contributing factor in the Kilkenny population sample.

“The high frequency of clay pipe facets or marks from clenching a pipe between the teeth in many of the skeletons was evidence of smoking in both males and females,” Dr Geber continued.

“The current study adds to the growing body of evidence that demonstrates that smoking is not only bad for your health; it is also bad for your teeth.”

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