AOA advocacy leads to federal crackdown on illegal contact lenses

A week before Halloween 2013, a federal agent in El Paso, Texas, stood behind a table covered in contraband. Gathered in a law-enforcement sweep, the illegal contact lenses laid out before him were there in part because of the AOA's advocacy.

Federal officials made this task a higher priority than ever before.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Homeland Security partnered to launch "Operation Double Vision." This unprecedented initiative seeks to end the importation and sale of illegal novelty and counterfeit contact lenses.

With the AOA's urging, federal officials made this task a higher priority than ever before.

"The AOA has been the leading voice nationally in urging federal agencies to do more to target illegal contact lens sales and sellers and help safeguard consumers," said Jon Hymes, AOA Washington office director. "It's encouraging to see the concerns of ODs being acted on in such a high profile and effective way and to be able to track the immediate results."

Enforcement authority

The crackdown comes as a result of an extended campaign by the AOA to encourage stricter enforcement of federal contact lens laws.

It has roots in 2005's AOA-backed Boozman Contact Lens Law, Hymes noted. Sponsored by Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), the law ensures even non-corrective decorative contact lenses are regulated as medical devices.

The FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents are jointly tackling the problem.

Novelty non-corrective contact lenses are widely offered for sale without a prescription. Consumers find them through websites and social media and through novelty shops, convenience stores, beauty supply stores and other retailers. Counterfeit and diverted lenses are also widely available, federal authorities acknowledge. 

A national—and international—problem

Operation Double Vision's initial cache of illegal lenses was confiscated in an October sweep of El Paso retail stores and street vendors. Some of these advertised the illegal lenses on Craigslist. Most lenses had come through nearby Juárez, Mexico.

Illegal novelty lens retailing has become a worldwide industry, said Dennis A. Ulrich II, special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso. For example, illegal lenses are commonly fabricated in the United Kingdom and South Korea.

Initiatives other than Operation Double Vision yielded results, as well:

  • Just days before the El Paso sweep, Canadian authorities working with U.S. Homeland Security agents seized an estimated $6.5 million in counterfeit goods—including contact lenses—in Toronto.
  • In November, an undercover operation by Mississippi authorities—working with the Mississippi Optometry Board—led to the confiscation of some 870 pairs of lenses and the arrest of seven store owners.
  • Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced he issued 15 cease-and-desist orders to retailers illegally selling contact lenses so far this year. He has issued more than 50 over the past four years.

The AOA continues to fight the problem in other ways, too. During this year's partial government shutdown, the AOA stepped in to act directly on complaints that national retailer Urban Outfitters was illegally selling decorative contact lenses online. After AOA President Mitchell T. Munson, O.D., wrote a letter to the company's CEO, sales were halted (member log-in required).

The AOA also is working with the FDA and the Entertainment Industries Council on a public services announcement (PSA) to be released in time for spring break 2014, when illegal sales are expected to increase.

December 16, 2013

comments powered by Disqus