Guest opinion – Are cigarettes and cell phones a privilege, an obligation, or a right? |

Guest opinion – Are cigarettes and cell phones a privilege, an obligation, or a right?

David Lurye, D.D.S.
Winter Park, Colorado

Our dental office recently provided free care for children supposedly coming from families qualifying for federal or state subsidized programs.

We saw a lot of children that day, from 2 years old up to 18. We felt very good about the service that our staff, who all volunteered their time, my partner and I provided.

There are truly many children (and adults) who fall through the proverbial cracks in our system and go without care because they simply cannot afford it and are not aware of the many programs in our state that provide free or low-cost care to people in their situations. We were happy to help them, just as we will be glad to in the future, until we have a better safety net than volunteerism.

On the other hand, we have a sector of society that either wittingly or unwittingly has become dependent on the state, having enough money to provide for things they want, but not providing their children things that they need.

During the presidential debates, a question was asked that I will now paraphrase: “Are cell phones for children, or cigarettes for yourself (the parent) a privilege, a right or an obligation?” And who should be paying for these goodies … the state or the feds, as clearly these things come before health care and other basic necessities that parents opt to get their kids.

Throughout the day, I was interrupted by the ringing of a cell phone in the child’s pocket that I was providing free care for. During idle time, usually when a child was going numb prior to a procedure being done, several kids took out their cell phones to text who knows who. My point is that I do not understand the mindset that allows a parent to buy a cell phone and service plan for their child before they get them health care.

I pulled aside more than one parent, away from earshot of the child, and suggested to them that perhaps their priorities were – how would you say it politely? – askew. One such encounter earned one of my employees a scolding the following day from the spouse of a parent that I pulled aside. She told my employee that I had no right to have an opinion on the subject. I figured that as a taxpayer and someone volunteering to provide care, oh yes I do.

We had another mother bring a child who had so much decay that he will lose 12 “permanent” teeth. So much for the meaning of that word. He had an infection that required antibiotics, a $12.50 prescription. The mother said that she did not have money for that. She told us this when we could clearly see two packs of cigarettes in her purse, at God knows how much a pack .

I would never suggest not helping any of these children, but I have issues with helping the parents who clearly are not able or willing to make rational choices for their children’s welfare.

The priorities that these parents have established clearly are a disservice to their children, unless you consider the ability to text or twitter a God-given American right. When I hear that kids are “safer” because they have cell phones, well, whatever happened to “be home by nine?” These parents get their kids phones because other kids have them. Perhaps they should mimic parents who have prioritized health care instead of cell phones, as many of our parents do.

My significant other teaches in a school district in the Denver area where if 75 percent of the children qualify for free lunches, 100 percent get them. As if that doesn’t seem wasteful enough, 89 percent of these 6th- through 8th-graders carry AT LEAST one cell phone. Government subsidized food so parents can get their kids what ultimately is a distraction to them in the classroom, an electronic way to pass notes.

These scenarios are repeated across much higher income sectors, with new cars, mountain bikes, skis, trips to Mexico and the latest full-suspension mountain bike thrown in just after the cigarettes and cell phones. These folks will say, “I don’t have dental insurance” as their reason for not bringing themselves or their children in. Regardless of income levels, there are many people who believe that health care should only be paid for with someone else’s money.

There is an old saying that every system is perfectly designed to give us the results we get. How true. Our system enables parents to make poor choices at the expense of their children, and at the expense of the rest of us. As a health-care professional, I am dismayed. As a taxpayer, I am angry.

If we are to have serious reform in this country, it is not only the system that has to change, but individuals as well. Behaviors can be difficult to change, but if we don’t we’ll never fix what causes some of the biggest problems in our health care system.

A major accounting firm estimates that over 1.2 trillion dollars are wasted in our medical system annually. The biggest culprit by far is our own behavior. We, the population of this country, waste up to $490 billion annually on behaviors such as smoking and obesity, and not adhering to our doctor’s recommendations.

It is not easy or popular to confront people on behavioral issues. It has been far easier to prescribe drugs and perform operations rather than modify behavior, regardless of how much more it costs to do so. Behaviors such as brushing and flossing are fundamental to good dental health. Eating properly and exercising, being aware of calories and fat are fundamental to staying healthy and fit.

Prioritizing our health and our children’s health should come first, but those priorities are often ignored in lieu of buying something like cigarettes or cell phones, along with a litany of other possessions or activities.

It’s hard to point fingers at ourselves. It seems discriminatory or accusatory to point fingers at others, but if we cannot acknowledge that personal behaviors are sinking our ship, we are in not just a fiscal crisis but a philosophical one, in which people cannot acknowledge personal responsibility and accountability. The sooner that we start talking about issues such as this, the less accusatory those arguments will seem, and when people can start talking about them as not just social issues, but health and economic issues, we can find a way to steer people into healthier lifestyles instead of having to go to heroic and expensive means of dealing with health problems.

There is a story about a tribe that lived on the top of a tall mesa. Every once in a while, someone would get too close to the edge and fall off, leaving them either killed, badly injured, or at least very bruised. As the tribe grew, people recognized the problem. Some said “let’s take a chunk of money and build a fence around the mesa so that no one can fall off.” Others said, let’s spend less money, educate them and reward them for staying away from the edge.”

Those who won the argument said “let’s build an expensive hospital at the bottom of the cliff, so those that survive the fall won’t have to change their behavior.” That group still dominates the thinking in this country. It is time to be more active in helping people stay away from the edge.