Be on the lookout: Illegal contact lenses

Be on the lookout: Illegal contact lenses

The FINANCIAL -- Two southern states find success in suppressing illegal contact lens sales through strategic partnerships and vigilant doctors, highlighting the integral role optometrists play in safeguarding the public.

Although contact lenses sold without a prescription are illegal, the AOA's 2014 American Eye-Q survey found that half of respondents who wore decorative contact lenses obtained them without a prescription. This issue isn't only a matter of public education—a priority the AOA addresses with its consumer-facing campaign—but also a matter of accessibility. And ODs around the country are stepping up to bring down these illegal retailers, according to American Optometric Association.

Collaboration in Alabama

Beyond beauty stores and flea markets, it's the shelves of Alabama's convenience stores where plano lenses turned up. And it's here that a novel inter-agency collaboration was born to curb illegal sales.

Fred Wallace, O.D., Alabama Board of Optometry executive director, says a simple phone call from an Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) officer asking about contact lenses sold in local convenience stores ultimately grew into a partnership between the two boards to curb illegal sales. 

As Alabama's convenience stores selling alcohol or cigarettes fall under the purview of the state ABC Board, these businesses are required to obtain an annual license. Per the boards' agreement, as businesses renew their license online, a message about illegal contact lens sales appears that owners must sign, acknowledging they understand the law.

"That has greatly curtailed the number of reports we get of illegal contact lens sales," Dr. Wallace says. "There are more than 10,000 convenience stores, so there's been a huge dent in the number of reported cases of illegal sales. Working with the ABC Board has been really helpful in establishing this process."

Awareness in Arkansas

Concerted action also is key in Arkansas where a crackdown on illegal contact lens sales has resulted in more than $100,000 in fines—and, subsequently, a greater awareness among retailers.

Dale Morris, O.D., Arkansas Board of Optometry president, says the measure started simply enough by following up on leads from fellow doctors about establishments selling illegal contact lenses. Then partnering with local sheriff's and health departments, and the state's Attorney General's office, an investigator is sent in an attempt to purchase lenses from that vendor. If a sale is made, that information is sent back to the board where the vendor is compelled to answer for their actions and face a fine.

"We hope to use that money to produce a public relations campaign to educate the people of Arkansas and the public about the dangers associated with illegal contact lenses," Dr. Morris says.

AOA Contact Lens watchdog group on point

Just as states are taking action against illegal contact lens sales, the AOA Contact Lens watchdog group continues to track reported violations and take action where necessary. Thomas Quinn, O.D., AOA Contact Lens & Cornea Section (CLCS) past chair, says the watchdog group has a two-fold mission: to identify retailers selling contact lenses illegally, and also to collect cases of people who have been harmed by wearing such lenses.

"We need to show policymakers that this isn't simply an economic issue, it is a public health issue," Dr. Quinn says.