How an AP reporter took down flossing

Kristen Hare at Poynter writes:

When an orthodontist asked the reporter if he wanted a good story idea, the reporter, of course, said “yes.”

Jeff Donn, a national writer with The Associated Press and 2012 Pulitzer finalist, was doubtful, at first, about that tip from his son’s orthodontist: There’s no solid evidence that flossing actually works.

Surely not correct as we have all been told how important it is.

Tell us about the process behind this story. It started with a FOIA, right?

My work started with a careful look at the research. Much of it was identified in five medical literature reviews undertaken over the past decade. I also began to wonder how floss had gained such wide acceptance, who had promoted it, and why.

I found that the federal government had been promoting floss for decades, chiefly in its Dietary Guidelines for Americans. By law, the guidelines must be based on science, so I asked staffers at the responsible agencies — the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture — for the documentation behind the floss recommendation. Weeks of requests failed to turn up anything. So I filed a formal FOIA request.

Six months passed. On Jan. 7, the government put out a new edition of the guidelines, as scheduled. The flossing recommendation had quietly been dropped. The next day, HHS wrote a letter to me in reply to my FOIA request. It said that no relevant records could be located and then added that floss had never been researched by the committees that review science for the guidelines.

It said that flossing had simply been taken as a “general public health recommendation.” In the end, this appeared to be a rare instance where simply filing a FOIA changed government policy.

So all he did was ask for the scientific evidence behind the advice, and it turned out there wasn’t really any, so they dropped the advice.

Do you floss?

Yes, I still do — to remove annoying bits of foods stuck in my teeth. My wife yells at me when I use my finger or a fork. But I think the best science indicates that I’m not doing anything beneficial for my health.

I use interdental brushes to remove the stuck food. Much easier than flossing I find!

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