Meth mouth: Ugly legacy of drug is taxing Utah jail, prison medical budgets

Published: Sunday, June 12 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

Dentist Robert Anderson shows the rotten teeth of inmate Cassie Tippetts at the Davis County Jail in Farmington.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

FARMINGTON — With her high cheekbones and pretty ponytail, Cassie Tippetts looks every bit the Utah college coed. She has bright hazel eyes and a smart personality. She is as cute as they come — until she smiles.

"You're not going to like what you see here," dentist Robert Anderson tells visitors as the young woman opens her mouth.

He is right.

Picture an old picket fence run over by a dump truck. Yellow splinters hang from red, swollen gums. The teeth that remain have thick, black cavities.

"I try to hide it as much as I can," Tippetts says.

But she did this to herself, she says, using a drug that eventually stole her job, her money, her freedom and her smile.

The 23-year-old Tippetts is not on a Utah college campus; she is in the Davis County Jail.

Tippetts has advanced evidence of what is known as "meth mouth" — a condition rampant among methamphetamine users and particularly evident in jail and prison populations throughout the country.

"It's pretty obvious when an inmate comes in addicted to methamphetamine," said James Ondricek, Davis County Jail nursing supervisor.

"They smile and you see their teeth all rotted out and fallen out at the gum line."

Nicole, 28.

Mother of four children.

She quit smoking meth at 23 when she noticed her teeth rotting, so she began injecting the drug. A dentist at a county jail has pulled 12 teeth.

"I used to have a pretty smile," Nicole said.

The unsightly "meth mouth" phenomenon has several implications for a Utah community already burdened by a methamphetamine crisis.

As has occurred as use of the drug has moved east, meth mouth is taxing dental budgets at Utah prisons and jails and in cities across the country like Minneapolis.; Raleigh, N.C.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Portland, Ore.; and Knoxville, Tenn. In Utah, inmates now have to wait longer and longer for dental services because hours allotted for dental care are clogged by meth addicts with rotting teeth and painful abscesses.

Contract dentists are having to put in more time to keep up with the demand for dental visits. Some jails have a two-month waiting list.

Dentists at jails in Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Utah counties say the vast majority of their patients are meth addicts. And this condition they call "meth mouth" is wreaking havoc on jail and prison dental budgets.

In Salt Lake County, for example, dental costs for inmates in the Salt Lake County Jail increased 30 percent between 2003 and 2004, according to Jared Davis in the county's finance office.

Dental costs for county inmates: $44,756 in 2003; $58,193 in 2004.

The county does try to charge inmates a co-payment for the teeth dentists yank, the abscesses treated and cavities filled. So, inmates do pay for a portion of their dental care. Inmates contributed nearly $9,000 in 2003 and nearly $12,000 in 2004.

Still, Davis said, "It's a pretty dramatic increase."

Meth mouth also creates a strange phenomenon that will result in a young generation of denture wearers.

Maybe more importantly, child advocates say, the pattern of neglect that contributes to "meth mouth" is being passed on to another generation of youngsters.

Colby Anderson, 29.

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