Going batty for contact lens wearers

October 6, 2022
Once again, in October, AOA’s ’31 in 31’ campaign is scrutinizing retailers in the contact lens market who wing it when it comes to patient protections.
Decorative contact lenses
  • A doctor of optometry reports to the AOA that a New Mexico flea market is selling costume contact lenses without prescriptions. “They are ignoring state and federal laws and need to be held accountable,” the doctor says.
  • An emergency patient arrives at a Colorado clinic on a Saturday due to a corneal abrasion. The patient had slept in colored contact lenses she obtained from a flea market. 
  • A patient comes to a doctor of optometry’s practice in Maryland wearing lenses from a company that did not require a valid prescription. The doctor reports the retailer to the AOA.

It’s October and the AOA’s ’31 in 31” annual advocacy campaign is reaching out to online retailers, brick-and-mortar shops and other sellers who distribute contact lenses without valid prescriptions, in violation of federal law.

The campaign has identified more than 150 retailers—with support over the years from doctors of optometry nationwide—that the AOA has directly contacted to inform them of the law regarding the sale of contact lenses.

While the AOA is not a regulatory enforcement entity, it has a central mission to serve as a resource to the public for reliable and current information related to eye care and health care policy.

“We would like to inform you of the regulatory and legal requirements that relate to the sale of contact lenses in the United States,” the letter from the AOA reads. “All contact lenses, even those that are only intended to change the appearance of the eye, require a prescription. The AOA would like for your company to be aware that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates contacts as medical devices. The improper wear and care of contact lenses can cause eye infections that can lead to serious, long-term damage, including vision loss. As such, we believe it is dangerous to consumers to sell such devices to individuals within the United States without appropriate prescriber supervision.”

Based on member reports, the AOA identifies retailers to reach out to, says Paul Velting, O.D., chair of the AOA Contact Lens & Cornea Section (CLCS).

“Without reports from doctors of optometry, we don't know which companies are the most frequent offenders,” Dr. Velting adds. “Reports from actual patient experiences are extremely important.”

Copies of those letters are also sent to federal agencies, such as the FDA.

Making a difference

Reports by doctors can make a significant difference.

“The main concern with unprescribed contact lenses is eye health,” Dr. Velting says. “While most of the decorative contact lens retailers tout their lenses as ‘FDA approved,’ patients sometimes assume this means they're automatically safe. Insulin is FDA approved, but we certainly wouldn't want our diabetic patients buying it online and using it without management from their physician.

“We hope to influence even one of these companies to discontinue the illegal practice of selling contact lenses without a prescription,” he says. “The perception is that contact lenses are one-size-fits-all commodities, and we need to ensure they are recognized for what they are—medical devices.”

How to report suspicious sales and resources for practices

Although the AOA is not a regulatory enforcement agency, one of its key missions is to serve as a resource to the public for reliable and current information related to safe management of contact lenses. Here's how doctors of optometry can help:

For more information on illegal retailer or incident reporting, contact Kara Webb at kcwebb@aoa.org.

The AOA provides patient- and public-oriented resources on decorative contact lenses (videos and a stock image) and information on the risk of buying decorative lenses online during Halloween.

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