Sep 21, 2022 - Podcasts

Does the UN General Assembly matter?

For the first time in three years, leaders from around the world are gathering in New York City for the UN General Assembly. The war in Ukraine is set to dominate this week’s meetings. President Biden will give a speech today, as will Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who will be addressing the assembly remotely. But can anything practical come from the gathering?

  • Plus, the pandemic made more Americans want to straighten their teeth. Now orthodontists and direct-to-consumer companies are battling it out.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Robin Lin, Fonda Mwangi, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Wednesday, September 21.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re covering today: the pandemic made more Americans want to straighten their teeth – and now orthodontists and direct-to-consumer companies are battling it out.

But first, does the UN General Assembly matter? That’s today’s One Big Thing.

For the first time in three years, leaders from around the world are gathering in New York City for the UN general assembly. The war in Ukraine is set to dominate this week's meetings. President Biden is also going to give a speech today, as well as Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky, who will be addressing the assembly remotely. Russian president Vladimir Putin is staying home and has sent his foreign minister in his place despite gathering last week at a summit in Uzbekistan with leaders from China and India.

Axios Middle East Correspondent. Barak Ravid is in New York city covering the meetings. Hey Barak.

BARAK RAVID: Hi Niala.

NIALA: So the Biden administration is using this assembly as a way to rally international support for Ukraine. What can we expect to come out of all of that?

BARAK: I hope that nobody's waiting for anything practical to come out of this, this is never the goal of the UN General Assembly. The UN General Assembly is the annual meeting of leaders who want to give speeches for their domestic audiences. All of them come, they stand there with this green wall behind them and give speeches. When they only care what the people in their country, whether they are watching or not, for Zelensky this and for Biden, this is also a way to continue the diplomatic pressure on Russia and rally public opinion against Russia. And I'll just give you an anecdote. So there was a separate vote a few days ago in the general assembly on whether Zelensky should be allowed to give a speech virtually. I think that other than Russia and three other countries, the entire world voted in favor of that. So even just this small issue of whether he's allowed to speak virtually or not turned into a vote against the Russians.

NIALA: So if this is about domestic agendas, the Turkish president and the Israeli prime minister met yesterday for the first time since 2008, how is that going to play in Turkey and Israel?

BARAK: So first it is, you know, I have to admit it's not only about domestic politics, because it is important that, for the first time in 14 years, those two meet. I still remember the last meeting between Erdoğan and then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Ankara that almost brought peace between Israel and Syria only to turn two weeks later to the biggest crisis between Turkey and Israel, that lasted 14 years until today. But basically both Erdoğan and Lapid needed this photo op for their own audiences, because for Lapid he has elections in several weeks. He needs to show that, you know, he can mend relations with a country like Turkey. And for Erdoğan that also has elections in a few months, and the opposition says that he's isolating Turkey, he can say to his constituents, you see here I am with the Israeli prime minister. So for both of them, it works great for their domestic politics.

NIALA: Another story going on here in the background is the Iran nuclear deal. What's the latest with that?

BARAK: So it's the first general assembly that the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi sees attending. And he started this general assembly with the CBS interview, where he suggested that we need to do an investigation on whether the Holocaust happened or not, which you know, didn't buy him too many points. And he continued with several meetings, in which he gave a very tough message on the Iran deal and whether the Iranians are gonna go for it or not. And it seems that right now, nothing is gonna happen and I think that everyone will look to see in his speech, whether he leaves anything, even a crack for the possibility of a deal or whether he closes the door completely.

NIALA: Barack, I'm curious your perspective as a non-American at the UN general assembly. What your take is on how important and effective this organization is in the international community currently?

BARAK I think this is my 15th general assembly. Unfortunately every year that passes, it's becoming more and more of a you know, ceremony, with less and less action and more and more talking. It's unfortunate because at the end of the day, the UN is needed. The problem is that this international institution lost its ability to do anything practical. And when this is the case, the only thing that's left is speeches.

NIALA: That's Axios middle east correspondent, Barack Ravid. As you can hear from the sirens he's in New York, covering the UN General Assembly. Thanks Barack.

BARAK: Thank you, Niala.

In a moment, the heated battle for the business…of your teeth.

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The pandemic made more Americans want to straighten their teeth

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. Sitting in front of zooms all day during the pandemic made a lot of us wanna make improvements to our appearance – new hair, new makeup, and even new teeth. And sales of products from Invisalign and Smile Direct Club have boomed since the pandemic. But that's complicating business for orthodontists across the country.

Axios Business Reporter Nathan Bomey has the story.

Nathan, you write that oral health companies, orthodontists and dentists are in a high stakes battle for our teeth. There's a lot of choices out there for consumers right now. What does the landscape look like?

NATHAN BOMENY: Well, for as long as most people can remember, the only way to straighten your teeth was to get braces. You know, those wires and brackets that you get as a kid and no one really likes. And along came these companies that offer these clear aligners that are made of plastic, that can be removed from your teeth at any given time to eat or drink, for example. And so if you're an orthodontist who is trained to do braces, that is a threat to your business.

NIALA: So I think we've all seen the commercials for like Invisalign or Smile Direct Club. How expensive is that compared to the traditional braces?

NATHAN: Invisalign, which is offered by a company called Aligned Technology, costs about $5,000 to $6,000 for a case, depending on where you live. And if you're in a more expensive area, it'll probably cost a little bit more. But Smile Direct Club only costs a couple thousand dollars and that's in part because Invisalign is overseen directly by a dentist in most cases, or in some cases an orthodontist, versus Smile Direct Club does not have an orthodontist overseeing it. This is really actually overseen remotely by a team of dentists that implement your treatment plan. So Smile Direct Club takes a much different approach. You could call it direct to consumer, almost do it yourself.

NIALA: And so how are dental professionals viewing Invisalign and Smile Direct Club?

NATHAN: Yeah, you know, dentists have largely embraced this because dentists are now able to oversee these sorts of teeth straightening cases that they could never oversee before, but the orthodontists are not as happy because they see Smile Direct Club, in particular, the sort of ‘do it at home’ way of doing things as a threat to their business. You know, braces are still the most popular way to straighten your teeth, it's about eight out of ten cases are handled by braces. And so that's good news for orthodontists, but it's rapidly changing. And most adults who want to straighten their teeth are starting to choose aligners. And now most kids, however, are still getting braces. And I think that's the big opportunity for these aligner companies.

NIALA: And there are some legal battles involved here as well?

NATHAN: There's been all sorts of legal fights in this industry for years and part because the orthodontics lobby has been fighting Smile Direct Club, in particular, by basically trying to prevent them from doing business in some states in a direct consumer model. They're basically having this fight at these obscure dental boards that exist at the state level that no one ever paid attention to before. They regulate dentistry on a state by state basis. There's been also been accusations that Invisalign and Smile Direct Club have conspired together to keep prices high. There's been fights over the technology that they use to straighten teeth. So there's all sorts of battles going on. Why? Because this is big business. This is a real significant revenue opportunity for everyone involved.

NIALA: So, what do consumers need to know about all of this?

NATHAN: I think consumers need to know that getting clear aligners to straighten your teeth can be a really good option for you because it is very effective and has been proven safe in most cases. But it also is important to acknowledge that the American Association of Orthodontists has warned that the quote on quote movement of biological material without the oversight of an orthodontist can be risky.

NIALA: That's Axios Business Reporter Nathan Bomey. Thanks Nathan.

NATHAN: Thank you.

NIALA: And - before we go – the Jan 6 Select Committee investigating the events of that day said yesterday it’s next - and likely final hearing will be the afternoon of Sept. 28. So, we’ll be covering that next week.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

NIALA: Confused by crypto? Can’t keep up with the Metaverse? The Slate Money podcast is here for you. Every week, familiar voices including Felix Salmon, Emily Peck, and Elizabeth Spiers break down the latest in business and finance news. Listen to Slate Money every Saturday morning wherever you get your podcasts.

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