Ruling could give dentists a big reason to smile
State dentists could get a monopoly on the lucrative business of teeth whitening pending action by a commission they control.
The State Dental Commission held a hearing in December to review whether teeth whitening should be classified as "dentistry" - a move that would result in the procedure being done only under a dentist's supervision. The commission is set to vote on the issue at its May 11 meeting. If the panel rules that it is dentistry, others who provide the service in shopping malls, salons and spas could be put out of business.
"I'm running a business in the state helping the economy," said Stephen Barraco, owner of Smile Bright, a Branford company employing five people that sells whitening products in salons.
Three of the six dentists on the state commission advertise that they offer teeth whitening in their practices, including the commission chair, Jeanne P. Strathearn, a West Hartford dentist. She declined through her staff to talk with C-HIT for this story. The commission also has three slots for non-dentist "public members." But two of those seats are vacant.
The commission's ruling would not affect the over-the-counter sale of whitening products.
Department of Public Health spokesman William Gerrish said that the commission had received complaints that teeth whitening was being done without a dentist's supervision. But he could not specify the nature of those complaints or whether consumers had been harmed.
North Carolina recently prohibited non-dentists from performing whitening and is being sued by the Federal Trade Commission as a result. The FTC maintains that North Carolina's dental board violated anti-trust laws by limiting competition for whitening customers. As in North Carolina, the state body overseeing dentistry in Connecticut is predominantly made up of dentists, a key point in the FTC's complaint.
Mitchell J. Katz of the FTC's Office of Public Affairs refused to speculate on whether similar action would be taken against Connecticut if the commission rules that whitening is dentistry.
Regardless of whether the FTC acts, Barraco said, he and others in the industry would take legal action if the commission passes a measure that forces them out of business. He maintains he is selling a product, just as pharmacies that stock whitening strips do.
"Why aren't they talking about Crest White Strips?" he asked.
No Connecticut business owners like Barraco were invited to testify at the commission's December hearing, after which public comment was closed.
Hearing notices were sent to the Connecticut State Dental Association, the Connecticut Dental Hygienists' Association, the Connecticut Dental Assistants' Association and the Council for Cosmetic Teeth Whitening, an Alabama-based trade organization. Legal notices were mailed to the American Dental Association and the heads of the state Departments of Consumer Protection and Public Health. The notices ran in the Connecticut Law Tribune.
The dental hygienists and the dental assistants' associations testified that teeth whitening is dentistry. The Alabama-based council did not submit testimony.
The dental association submitted testimony by President Jonathan Davis, stating that teeth whitening products use "potent oxidizing elements that, if applied incorrectly or inappropriately, could cause serious chemical burns. Some whitening procedures also utilize a light source that if applied incorrectly or inappropriately could cause harm to the patient as well." Davis warned that "only a dentist is able to diagnose the reasons for discolored teeth."
$11 billion industry
In interviews, three different vendors who offer teeth whitening stressed that they never touch customers.
"I simply give instruction and the customer puts the mouthpiece in their mouth by themselves. It's FDA approved, and certainly does not need to be done only in a dentist office," wrote Laura Davis, owner of White Science, in an email.
Joyce Osborn, president of the Council for Cosmetic Teeth Whitening, insists that regulations like the one proposed in Connecticut are "really done to try to monopolize the industry."
That industry is an $11 billion one, according to Osborn. She said that non-dentist providers offer an affordable way for consumers to get their teeth whitened.
The Federal Trade Commission estimated that non-dentists charge between $100 and $150 per whitening session, while a dentist typically charges between $300 and $700, with some dental procedures costing as much as $1,000.
"It's the same - with the exception of what you're paying," Osborn said.
This story was reported by the Connecticut Health Investigative Team (www.c-hit.org), under an agreement with The Day.
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