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Thailand: This smile might kill you

Thai teen girls think braces are cute. They're also deadly.

Promotional photo for Thai pop singer "Earn The Star" showcases her technicolor braces. A contingency of Thai teenage girls who can't afford cutesy legit braces seek out unsafe fake braces in unlicensed markets or via the internet. (Photo courtesy GMM/GRAMMY)

From fake Viagra to Korean pop, trends in Thailand are dangerous business. In this greatest hit from 2010, GlobalPost looks at the Thai fad of fashion braces, and just how far teens will go for a designer smile.

BANGKOK, Thailand — Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health is forever condemning the next underground beauty craze. There’s glue-on eyelashes that can prick retinas. Toxic skin-whitening creams. Cheaply made contact lens that offer girls Pikachu-sized fantasy eyes.

But the teen fad health authorities consider the most dangerous is proving surprisingly resilient. After more than five years of health warnings, after two teenage deaths last year, some Thai girls still seek out cuteness-enhancing “fashion braces.”

Braces, that scarlet letter of American junior high geekdom, are adored by some Thai teenyboppers. Those who can’t afford dentist fees sometimes resort to braces attached in flea markets and living rooms by entrepreneurs with mail-order dental supplies. Though crudely applied, the braces appear genuine.

Reasons to avoid underground braces? Beyond the canker sores and sliced inner lips even legit braces offer, Thailand’s Dental Council warns of blood poisoning, infected dental tools, nerve damage and swallowing dislodged fittings.

“We just think they’re cute. Nice and cute!” said Supapich Konkayan, a 22-year-old art student in Bangkok. Her smile was laced with metal wiring and electric purple fittings. (The braces, she said, were real.) “Some of us have real dental problems. And for the others it’s just, well, fashion.”

But fashion braces are medically worthless and potentially deadly.

Last August, an amateur braces job left a 17-year-old girl in Thailand’s northeast city of Khon Kaen with an infected thyroid, which led to fatal heart failure. Police in Chon Buri province have also connected an open-air, illegal braces stall to the death of a 14-year-old girl.

“Teenagers shouldn’t be deciding whether to get fashion braces, for they only think of what’s hip,” concluded a recent Thailand Dental Council report, which describes long queues in front of quack dental stalls, which are sometimes disguised as laboratories.

“All this reflects that Thai society hasn’t yet developed into a wise society,” said the report. “It’s a society takes advantage of the ignorance of teenagers.”

Damning Thai media coverage has driven many purveyors of phony braces out of market stalls and onto the internet. Teen-centric web boards are littered with posts promising home delivery service, even to outlying provinces. The going rate: $24 per row of teeth or $45 for a full set.

One well-advertised service called “Jud Fun” — “fix teeth” in English — promotes a full-color palette of changeable dental bands for girls to choose from, as well as a customized Mickey Mouse design.