Coke Children: In Hauts-de-France, the harmful effects of soft drinks on very young children are unknown

Children with milk teeth stained black, in which only the roots remain. Young children as young as three or four years old are already showing crooked dentures or teeth, which grow with holes like Swiss cheese … These children, the health and early childhood professionals they receive or meet on a daily basis, are sometimes called Coca-Cola babies.” Their descriptions came out of Dickens’ book.This happens not on the other side of the planet but here, in the city of Lille and the whole region.

Dentist Angeline Leblanc practiced and defended, in 2020, a thesis at the University Hospital of Lille on early caries cases involving 50 children from the European city of Lille (MEL). “We’re talking about early cavities when they appear in children under six,” she explains. In some cases, the first spots on the teeth appear much earlier. “We sometimes see one-year-old patients who only have four teeth, and they are all decayed, which the hygienist regrets. Then only the roots remain and we have no other solution but to extract them.”

‘We tend to extract teeth rather than treat them’

Angeline LeBlanc notes that this type of intervention is common at Lille University Hospital. “Treating such young children is very complex: by the time they arrive at the dental department, it is often too late. They have been hurting for a long time. Then we tend instead to remove the tooth or teeth in question rather than treat it…”

Dentists aren’t the only ones making this observation. “We welcome children with soft, easily broken teeth,” said Stephanie Leclerc, Head of the Early Childhood Center in Lille of the Public Administrative Foundation for Support, Accompaniment and Education (EPDSAE) in Lille. They are between a few months and six years old, undergo major surgeries and follow more or less traumatic medical appointments. Added to this is the fears of the families, who were completely overwhelmed by the events.

“We support parents with significant social fragility, who sometimes don’t know how to read. Stephanie Locklear thinks they think they are doing a good job and don’t realize that what they make their children consume can be harmful. Some of them only get bottles of cola or iced tea … “Stephanie Leclerc’s teams, made up especially of teachers and child care assistants, provide education. They ask parents to attend medical appointments so that they are aware of the risks this type of drink poses to their children.”

Not all are equal in the face of brown baby bottles

“We consider that 20% of the French population is concentrated in 80% of teething problems,” confirms Angeline LeBlanc. In other words, these are closely related to the standard of living. But in all social classes, ignorance of the dangers associated with consuming sugary drinks is dominant among the young. “Parents enjoy seeing their kids make faces because of the bubbles. So they give it back,” says Stephanie Leclerc.

In front of the school gate, teachers were surprised to see children passing by carrying baby bottles in strollers. “The first time, it got me hooked, it just seemed so surreal to me as a spectacle,” recalls Marie, a kindergarten teacher at REP+ in Pas-de-Calais. She talks about it around her and discovers a practice more common than she ever imagined. “I established relations with many families – in particular, I went several times to a mother who gave her child a taste of cola with a small spoon …”

“Wealthy families will not end up with children in so much pain that they have to have their teeth extracted.”

Faced with such a lesion, professionals say that they often feel helpless. As a young teacher, Marie found herself helpless in the face of a situation beyond her competence. “I was trying to create a bond with families. The best way to do that is not to get caught up in them judging their children’s upbringing. But I still gave hints during school trips or reminded me that drinking water is essential.”

These notes to parents before school outings to tell them that water is the favorite drink of all children, and teachers and leaders of recreation centers are used to making it. And not just in priority neighborhoods. The sugary drink craze affects all social classes. At parent-teacher meetings, the topic is regularly brought to the table. And among those who swear by organic matter, many forget that in fruit juices .. there is sugar and a quantity! However, when caries does appear, the effects are not the same in these families. Angeline LeBlanc asserts that “the wealthy will go to the dentist from the first spot and will not end up with children in so much pain that they have to have their teeth extracted.”

Towards better prevention?

Given the seriousness of the situation, some health professionals are still angry at passing through the shelves of baby products in supermarkets, which in particular offer small bottles of concentrated fruit. “It should be banned,” Angeline LeBlanc loosed, annoyed. She is not the only one who thinks this. “We are campaigning to stick ‘no children under 6’ labels on soda bottles,” the most involved parents announced. But these scattered noises do not bypass the school boards and cannot by themselves move the lines. Nor dentists.

“We try to explain to the parents, but often they tell us that they themselves do not drink water and do not see where the problem is”

Food grade labels were launched in France in 2017, and may become mandatory at the end of 2022. But these indications do not seem to suffice – hence the idea of ​​creating other labels to indicate “forbidden for children” products, on the model from the slogan “Not recommended”. Its for pregnant women” on liquor bottles. Some countries have already addressed this topic. For example, two Mexican states have banned the sale of sugary drinks to people under the age of 18 since August 8, 2020. The first measure was actually implemented in 2014, which taxed sugary drinks. Mexico is so far the only country in the world that has taken such measures, especially to combat childhood obesity. Others, like Chile, are trying to incentivize precautions with shock stickers.

In France, there is nothing similar at the moment. However, a national study on the health status of children aged 5-6 years in different regions of France, commissioned by the Ministry of Health at the dawn of 2000, already reported an “emergency” situation. Twenty years later, nothing has changed. Disappointed, some early childhood professionals end up giving up. Others continue to mobilize, with personal initiatives: Kindergarten teachers hand out pamphlets about the importance of dental hygiene or the need to limit the consumption of sugary drinks … “We try to explain to parents, but they often tell us that they don’t. You don’t drink water and you don’t see where the problem lies. . »

In the absence of an intense and coordinated response from the health authorities on the matter, their individual actions remain a small stone in a huge pool of … coke.

I found out about Coca-Cola Kids when my kid started kindergarten. The teacher distributed leaflets on dental health to the parents; I was surprised by the recommendations printed there. It seemed clear to me that carbonated and sugary drinks should not be given to the youngest before bed, for example. I talked about it with the teacher: she was very surprised that I did not know about the existence of the “Coca-Cola children” and told me what she knew about them. Over time, other people (teachers, child care aides, etc.) I met during various reports have mentioned what is sometimes referred to as “bottle-feeding syndrome”.

These meetings were held in Aisne, Pas-de-Calais and Nord. I understood that there was a public health problem and decided to investigate. The meeting with Angeline LeBlanc, the dentist who prepared her dissertation on the topic, was decisive. It allowed me to get a sense of the scale of the phenomenon even if it was impossible to get figures on the number of children involved. At the moment, there is no data, even approximate, on this topic. Contact was made, the Regional Health Agency (ARS) Hauts-de-France did not want to shed light on Mediacités and regret this, in a region famous for its alarming indicators in this area …

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