As millions of Americans get ready for their Halloween costume parties, scores of consumers have purchased nearly 100,000 pairs of “counterfeit, dangerous, and unapproved” colored contacts for their outfits. They have all been confiscated by “Double Vision,” an FDA-led campaign.
As one would expect, members of the medical lobby are using this government-led effort to drum up support for their congressional lobbying efforts so that their anti-free market bill, The Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act (CLCHPA), is passed into law.
Many years ago, if you chose to purchase contact lenses to aid your vision, you would get them from your eye doctor’s office after an examination, and pay the price asked for them. As with other products and services in our free market economy, you have choices, and independent vendors began selling contact lenses at a deeply discounted price to stimulate sales. In 2003, Congress stepped in to protect consumer rights by enacting legislation that required your eye doctor to give you a copy of your prescription, allowing you to buy your contact lenses from other vendors.
But an association of eye care practitioners and the contact lens industry wants Congress to pass legislation that will grant them a near monopoly over contact lens sales. Enactment of the proposed legislation, which is already rendered antiquated and unnecessary by available technology, would restrict consumer choices. The whole campaign to re-monopolize contact lens sales is being advanced on the basis of false claim that it is safer to buy contact lenses from the eye doctors offices rather than via independent vendors.
The American Optometry Association (AOA), a group that represents most eye doctors, and Johnson & Johnson, the largest maker of contact lenses, is urging Congress to pass the “Contact Lens Consumer Protection Act of 2016” (S. 2777), a bill that would repeal consumer protections and free market reforms so that members of the medical lobby can again price gouge contact lenses.
Supporters of this legislation are advancing it based on the already debunked claim that contact lenses purchases at the eye doctors offices are safer, and the assertion consumers must be protected from allegedly unsafe contact lens purchases elsewhere. Essentially, supporters of the legislation want to “protect” consumers from having choices in where they can purchases their contact lenses, based on false claims of safety.
A study commissioned via an investigation of 17 state attorneys general in 1997 found that contact lenses purchases from independent vendors are as safe as those purchased at the eye doctors offices. The industry claims highest incidents of microbial keratitis from contact lenses purchased outside the eye care practitioners offices, yet a 20 year study reported in 2007 in Eye & Contact Lens journal no increase in microbial keratitis since consumers have been allowed to order contact lenses online.
Dr. Paul B. Donzis, professor of ophthalmology at UCLA, wrote in a letter to the authors of the proposed legislation, “Based on…authoritative scientific articles, it appears that online sales of contact lenses have not contributed to any increase in the incidence of contact lens related [injury].”
Technology makes the proposed regulations, and even the requirement that a consumer get a prescription from the eye doctors office, unnecessary and antiquated. There are now ways for consumers to measure their own eye prescription quite accurately for ordering contact lenses.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a cell phone app that allows users to obtain their own prescription accurately enough to purchase glasses or contact lenses. A similar app called Opternative allows consumers to do the same thing as a means of measuring their vision and obtaining a prescription for contact lenses. SimpleContacts, VisionTest, and GlassesOn are other ways consumers will be able to obtain their prescriptions.
Prescriptions from the eye doctors office are no longer needed to insure consumer safety in this area, according to research conducted by Dr. Donzis. In Europe, where consumers are not required to receive a prescription, there are significantly lower incidence reports related to contact lenses. Consumers in Europe and Japan purchase on contact lenses without prescriptions, and this works just fine, and the same manufacturers are more than willing to sell to overseas markets without the same requirements.
While some may argue that Congress regulated eye doctors by passing the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act in 2004, the passage of the bill’s regulations were needed to curb the doctors’ government-created monopoly. With the rise of technology that empowers consumers to make their own choices, even this 2004 legislation could easily one day be repealed, because consumers no longer need prescriptions from eye doctors to buy contact lenses from other vendors.
This Halloween, Congress should not fall for the fear tactics of optometrists and their favored contact lens manufacturers. Washington can truly deregulate the contact lens industry, and do it safely while allowing consumers and eye doctors to fully participate in the free market. Doing so will prove yet again, that when allowed, the free market truly works for all of us.