This election, we’re looking at the key issues affecting young voters, breaking down stats to show the reality, what young voters think about it, and later, once they’re all announced, the policies from different parties on the issue.

Let’s look at dental health care.

At a glance: 

  • 42% of New Zealand adults say they cannot afford dental treatment.
  • The average dentist appointment bill is $353, about half of an adult minimum-wage earner’s weekly income.
  • Severe tooth decay sees a quarter of a million New Zealanders needing to have a tooth extracted every year.
  • New Zealand’s dentist and dental specialist workforce is one of the smallest per capita in the OECD.

Read: What are each political party planning to do for health? Here are all the policies broken down.

The first time Rongopai saw a dentist he was in prison. 

He was 25 years old and says he didn’t go earlier because he never thought he needed to but once he got to prison he had to have six teeth taken out during his six-year sentence. 

“I’ve had some pretty bad hidings in my life and I promise you, I’d rather take a hiding than have one of those toothaches,” says Rongopai, who didn’t want to include his last name for privacy reasons.

“I didn’t sleep for a whole week. It was some of the worst pain I’ve ever had in my life.”

At one point Rongopai asked another inmate to “punch his tooth out” but the person refused. 

If I had pliers at the time I probably would have considered that,” he says. 

Since being out of prison, Rongopai has needed to go to the dentist but hasn’t gone because he can’t afford to. 

He says his only option would be to try and get a quote from Work and Income to help fund it.

“I don’t have spare money just to go to the dentist,” he says. “If it was free, fucking oath, I’m there.”

He believes dental care should be free for low and middle-income people who struggle to afford a trip to the dentist - but those that can afford to pay, should. 

“If you are living in a mansion then you should be able to pay for it. But it should be free for the people at the bottom end of society,” he says.

New Zealanders are struggling to afford the dentist

Forty two percent of New Zealand adults cannot afford dental treatment. That number increases to 54% for Māori and 51% for Pasifika, according to a report by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS).

As a country, New Zealand has the highest unmet need for adult dental care among 11 comparable countries - we ranked lower than Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 

Source: Tooth be told. Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS).

The biggest reason for this is the cost. 

In New Zealand, dental care is excluded from the public health system so the average dentist appointment bill is $353 - about half of an adult minimum-wage earner’s weekly income.

As a result, many New Zealanders avoid going to the dentist regularly and this has led to a 30% rise in the number of people who need hospital-level emergency dental care and a quarter of a million New Zealanders needing to have a tooth extracted every year due to severe tooth decay. 

According to the New Zealand Dental Association, the number one reason children get admitted to hospital in New Zealand is to have their teeth taken out. 

About 8500 children are getting admitted to hospitals every year to have their decayed teeth removed under general anaesthetic.

New Zealand's frequent consumption of sugary drinks and food, particularly at a young age, is a big reason for this. New Zealand’s level of sugar consumption per capita is one of the highest in the OECD. 

Source: Tooth be told. Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS).

Watch: New Zealand’s dental care crisis explained.

We don’t have enough dentists in New Zealand

Another key issue is there aren’t enough dentists in the country. 

New Zealand stopped providing its dentist workforce data to the OECD in 2009, when it was ranked 19th out of 21 countries on the number of “professionally active” dentists per capita. 

Only Poland and Turkey had fewer dentists than us.

But more recent data from 2019, published by the NZ Dental Council, shows New Zealand’s workforce is still among the lowest in the OECD.

Source: Tooth be told. Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS).

According to the Tooth be told report, six territorial authorities (Kaipara, Westland, Hurunui, Mackenzie, Waimate and Chatham Island territories) had no dentists and no dental specialists recorded in 2019. 

Wairoa is also currently without a dentist and hasn’t had one for three years.

“On the West Coast there are two Lumino dentists in Hokitika and then going south the next one is in Wanaka. From there, travelling inland the next one is in Christchurch, so patients are driving more than an hour and a half one way just to get a filling,” the report explains. 

Dental care and the election

Dental care has become a hot topic this election with some parties announcing policies to make dental care more accessible, and others rejecting these policies completely.

Currently, it is free for under 18 year olds to access basic dental care services. 

The Labour Party wants to extend this to under 30 year olds. The policy will first cover 18-23 year olds from July 2025 and then 18-29 year olds from July 2026.

The plan is expected to cost $390 million over the four years from 2024. It also includes a focus on growing the number of dentists by increasing places in Bachelor of Dental Surgery by 50%.

Te Pāti Māori want free dental visits for families earning less than $60,000 a year.

The Green Party wants to extend free basic dental care to all New Zealanders. 

The plan is expected to cost over $3 billion over three years, which the party says will be funded by a wealth tax which would impact 0.7% of New Zealanders (couples worth more than $4 million, minus mortgages and other debt, and individuals worth more than $2m).

However, the policy is unlikely to pass because Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has ruled out a wealth tax if he’s elected to lead the next government. 

ACT leader David Seymour says Labour’s dental care policy is a “populist fantasy” and is “desperately bribing voters with ‘free’ stuff” with policies he says the government cannot afford. 

National’s Chris Bishop says National supported wider access to dental care and would like to do it in the future when the country has a strong economy. 

Keep an eye on Re: News in the weeks before the election - we’ll do a detailed wrap-up of all of the party's policies around dental care access.

Top image: Dental team performing procedure - stock photo. Getty Images

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