Periodontal diseases are highly prevalent, particularly amongst socially disadvantaged populations, impact on quality of life and are costly to treat. Clinical treatments and chairside preventive approaches alone will never adequately address this problem. Indeed in many parts of the developing world clinical care and chairside prevention are both unaffordable and inappropriate for the control of periodontal diseases. A paradigm shift away from the individualized treatment approach to a population public health model is needed to promote periodontal health and, in particular to address social inequalities in periodontal status. Public health measures need to focus on the underlying determinants of periodontal diseases. Poor hygiene, tobacco use, psychosocial factors and related systemic diseases are the main risk factors for periodontal diseases. Public health interventions need to tackle these factors but also must recognize and act upon the distal underlying influences that determine and pattern these identified risks. Recognition also needs to be placed on the interlinking and common risk factors shared by periodontal diseases and other chronic conditions. A complementary range of public health policies acting at local, regional, national and international levels need to be implemented to achieve sustainable improvements in oral health. To be effective these policies need to link across the broader public health agenda and require public engagement and support. Clinicians, public health practitioners, commercial organizations and professional groups all have an important role to play in promoting periodontal health.