More than half of all children in the UK have tooth decay and more than a third have unhealthy gums.

More than half of all children in the UK have tooth decay and more than a third have unhealthy gums.

A diet packed with fizzy drinks, chocolate and sweets is destroying youngsters' teeth, according to a government survey published yesterday.

The survey of more than 2,000 children aged four to 18 in the UK found that 53 per cent had tooth decay. That rose to more than two-thirds of youngsters aged 15-18, and even 37 per cent of four to six year-olds.

Levels were highest in Scotland, where 66 per cent of youngsters had tooth decay; they were lowest in south-east England, where 44 per cent of children's teeth were rotting.

Researchers found "significantly higher" levels of decay among children whose parents were manual workers, living on benefits or where the mother had no formal qualifications.

More than a third (35 per cent) of all youngsters had unhealthy gums and four out of 10 had plaque on their teeth. And 40 per cent of teenagers aged 15-18 were suffering from the gum disease gingivitis, where the gums bleed.

Soft drinks made up the largest proportion of sugary foods consumed and accounted for most of the acidic foods eaten by youngsters. Boys aged 15-18 gulped 337g of fizzy drinks - just over a can - every day, while girls drank just 239g.Younger children were more likely to favour squash drinks, while teenagers drank more fruit juice and fizzy drinks. Children whose parents are on benefits or those in single-parent families were more likely to drink cans of pop. Children in the north of England are the biggest consumers of sugary foods and fizzy drinks.

Despite their sweet teeth, two-thirds of children were aware that sugary foods caused tooth decay. And two-thirds said they cleaned their teeth twice a day, with girls more likely to brush morning and night than boys. Nearly one in 10 four to six-year-olds had never visited a dentist, but by the age of 11, 99 per cent had had a check-up. By age 15, only one in five still had a mouth free of fillings or extractions.

Health minister Lord Philip Hunt said: "In general terms, children's teeth are improving. However, most dental disease is preventable and many of the findings of the report reinforce key existing oral health promotion messages."