Moral panics rip through cultures, observed sociologist Stanley Cohen in 1972, whenever "experts" and the "right-thinking" folks in the press, government, and the clergy exaggerate the danger a group or thing poses to society.
Immigrants have been the subject of moral panics, as have alcohol, jazz, comic books, sex, street gangs, rock, video games, religious cults, white slavery, dance, and homosexuals. But in the United States, moral panics are most reliably directed at illicit drug users. No exaggeration or vilification directed their way is too outrageous for consideration.
For the last year, a moral panic about methamphetamine and its users has been gathering force, and last week it peaked as Slate's corporate sibling, Newsweek magazine, joined the crusade with a cover story. Calling methamphetamine "America's Most Dangerous Drug," the magazine also portrayed its use as "epidemic." In typical moral-panic fashion, Newsweek offered no data to anoint meth as the deadliest of drugs, nor did it prove its assertion that meth use is spreading like a prairie fire. Instead, the magazine relied almost exclusively on anecdotes from law enforcement officials, anti-drug politicians, and users (current and reformed) to stir up emotions against meth and meth-heads.
If you were to reduce the current moral panic to a single image, it would be a photo of a meth user whose gums are pus-streaked and whose rotting teeth—what teeth he still has—are blackened and broken. The affliction, tagged "meth mouth" in scores of articles, earns a prominent place in Newsweek's Grand Guignol coverage (see the picture in this Newsweek spread).
Although users have been snorting, smoking, injecting, and swallowing methamphetamine in great quantities for more than 40 years, the phrase meth mouth is brand new. It makes its first Nexis appearance in Investor's Business Daily as an unsourced one-liner in a Jan. 31, 2003, digest of news: "Methamphetamine's drying effect on saliva glands leads to tooth decay and gum disease, dentists say, a trend known as 'meth mouth.'"
More than two dozen different stories about meth mouth have appeared in Nexis since the IBD mention, but the majority of them fail to advance the story in any significant way. The better articles note, as IBD did correctly, that methamphetamine users suffer from dry mouth (xerostomia), which contributes to tooth decay and gum disease. Many of them also find that many users attempt to refresh their dry mouths with sugared sodas, which accelerates decay. The best articles explain that many meth-mouthers get that way because they've neglected brushing, flossing, and regular visits to the dentist. Such a regimen is almost always a prescription for tooth loss.
But most of the articles go off on tangents, blaming contaminants or the corrosive quality of meth itself. For instance, Minneapolis' Star Tribune (Jan. 6, 2005) writes that the "acidic nature of methamphetamine if it is smoked or snorted" plays a role (reprinted in shorter form). The St. Paul Pioneer Press (Jan. 6, 2005) finds that "acid in meth corrodes tooth enamel, letting decay-causing bacteria seep in."
The Kansas City Star (Jan. 26, 2005): "What causes the problems is the acid content in some of the ingredients used to make methamphetamine, including anhydrous ammonia, ether and lithium. The acid can decrease the strength of the enamel on the teeth." Nice try, Star, but anhydrous ammonia, ether, and lithium are not acids.
The AP (Feb. 2, 2005) points to contaminants as well: "Methamphetamine can be made with a horrid mix of substances, including over-the-counter cold medicine, fertilizer, battery acid and hydrogen peroxide"—chemicals that reduce saliva, which is needed to neutralize acids and clear food from the teeth. Later that same month, the AP (Feb. 21, 2005) says that "methamphetamine ingredients like hydrochloric acid and lye corrode teeth when users inhale the drug's smoke. The drug dries in users' mouths, drying saliva that would block the acid and letting food build up on the gums against the teeth."
The Albuquerque Journal (April 12, 2005) collects this artful anecdote from a local dentist: "Meth use is an emerging epidemic. ... It explodes people's teeth. It's like ice crystals forming in the crevices of rock, fracturing the teeth."