By Dean Chambers –
Major corporations are often perceived by many as supporters of free enterprise, but unfortunately, this frequently proves to not be the case. The sheer hypocrisy of Johnson & Johnson in asking legislatures to regulate their competition out of business is a textbook example as to why.
Last month, the president of J&J Vision North America, Peter Menziuso, and other executives with the company, worked with the American Optometric Association (AOA) to lobby members of Congress, including Sen. Bill Nelson and Reps. Bob Latta and Michael Burgess, claiming that more regulations are needed to protect patient safety in eye care.
“Helping people safeguard their eyesight is our top priority at Johnson & Johnson Vision,” Menziuso said in a statement. The reality, though, is that Johnson & Johnson is and always has been far more concerned with their profit margins and eliminating their competition than the safety of eye care patients.
Johnson & Johnson boasts a 40 percent market share in the worldwide contact lens market, largely due to government prescription mandates and the company’s crony relationship with optometrists. Since J&J provides sizable monetary incentives to optometrists who both write brand-specific J&J prescriptions and then turn around and sell those same lenses, it is certainly no coincidence that J&J lenses are most eye care professionals’ go-to choice.
J&J’s “safety” excuse to ban and regulate third party apps and vendors is the same one the contact lens industry used to justify its belief that the sale of lenses sold by independent vendors are less safe than those sold at the eye doctor’s office. This was debunked in 1997 via an investigation by 17 state attorneys general, who found that contact lenses purchased from eye care providers were no more safe than those purchased from third parties. Yet, J&J continues to peddle the false narrative as a way to regulate its competition away so that its government-created monopoly is protected.
What is ironic is that Johnson & Johnson falsely raises these health and safety concerns while at the same time, they continue to sell their contact lenses in vending machines in many other countries. It seems oddly hypocritical for the company to be decrying the danger of going to the eye doctor less frequently, and then turning around and to sell its lenses overseas in no prescription required dispensaries.
Only our prescription requirements are preventing them from doing the same here in the United States. But since the company has a government-created monopoly as a result of their successful regulatory capture efforts here, they want to keep this convenient, protectionist setup in place.
Last year, optometrists and contact lens makers lobbied heavily for Congress to pass the Consumer Health Protection Act (CLCHPA), a bill that would restrict consumers choices and regulate competition’s selling of eye care products, reversing many of the free market reforms enacted in 2003. Before those reforms, the industry had a history of engaging in anti-competitive practices, including forcing customers to purchase eye care products at the eye doctor’s office by denying them access to copies of their prescriptions. If CLCHPA is passed, discount contact lens vendors would be, in effect, locked out of business, forcing consumers to purchase the same products at the eye doctor’s office at inflated prices. This would be a net loss for consumers’ well-being, enhancing the profits of optometrists and the contact lens makers while not protecting the safety of a single contact lens wearer.
Today, the eye care industry and their lobbyists have a new goal: stopping ocular telemedicine. This new groundbreaking technology, which allows consumers to save time and money by having their eyes tested for prescriptions with smartphone applications, makes it possible for consumers to visit the eye doctor’s office less often. These apps, including Simple Contacts, Opternative and GlassesOn, also make consumers even more likely to purchase their eye care products from discount sellers. They can visit the eye doctors as infrequently as once every two years, as recommended by the AOA, while updating their prescriptions using the new technology between those visits.
Claiming selfless reasons for their lobbying efforts, J&J has also lobbied in many states for legislation that would deny consumers access to cost-saving eye care technology. In Nevada, a bill prohibiting ocular-telemedicine failed when the sponsor, Assemblywoman Jill Tolles, withdrew it from consideration after realizing the anti-consumer implications of the proposed legislation. Recently, similar bills were also vetoed by the governors of New Mexico and South Carolina. The latter, then-governor Nikki Haley, said of the bill she vetoed: “it uses health practice mandates to stifle competition for the benefit of a single industry.”
The optometrists were given another blew recently in Connecticut, where the state legislature passed a bill allowing for the use of ocular telemedicine once the patient has received two in-person eye exams. Now, their focus has moved onto the state of Rhode Island, where Rep. Rob Jacquard and Sen. Frank Ciccone have carried their water by introducing protectionist bills.
J&J’s goal is clear, and it is certainly not to protect the safety and health of consumers. The eye care industry is undoubtedly seeking to limit the choices of consumers just to further pad their bottom line. Here’s to hoping that federal and state legislatures come to grips with their hypocrisy before it’s too late.