Practitioners in Alabama and North Carolina Challenge State Dental Board over Teeth Whitening

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A businesswoman who operates out of Guntersville, Alabama is challenging state laws after she was forced to stop selling teeth whitening services.

Joyce Wilson sells teeth whitening products in over a dozen states where it’s allowed, but she received a cease-and-desist order from Alabama’s dental board in 2006, at which point she stopped selling her services there. According to Wilson, she was threatened with a $5,000 fine and a year of jail time.

Attorneys for dentists have argued that Wilson was prevented from selling her products for safety reasons, but Wilson is fighting back. She says that her products are cosmetic: if you can do your own manicure rather than go to a professional, you should be able to do the same for teeth whitening.

“I feel the dentists are trying to monopolize this and it’s all about the back pocket and what’s going in the back pocket,” Wilson told WSFA 12 News, a local NBC affiliate. “The Alabama Dental Board wouldn’t even allow me to make a presentation to them when this first came out in 2006.”

Teeth whitening is a lucrative market, and Americans spend about $1.4 billion on products and procedures to whiten their smiles each year. The cost of whitening at a dentist is considerably higher than purchasing over-the-counter products.

Wilson’s lawsuit has attracted the attention of the New York Times and other large papers, and other teeth-whitening product sellers may be following her lead.

A case pitting the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners against the state’s teeth-whitening businesses made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court this month.

The dispute arose when the Dental Board began delivering cease-and-desist letters, similar to the letter Wilson received, to independent teeth whitening practitioners working out of spas, mall kiosks and other retail settings without a licensed dentist present.

These practitioners raised a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission in 2010, and the FTC ruled that the board had overstepped its bounds and was inhibiting market competition for consumers.

To clarify, the NC board doesn’t have a problem with at-home products. They’re objecting to the use of professional dental equipment by unlicensed individuals. But, as teeth-whitening becomes more commonplace and lucrative, it will be harder to keep competitors from jumping into the field.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear both sides of the case on Oct. 14. The ripples of their ruling could have effects on regulatory boards everywhere, including the dental board in Alabama. Wilson’s case has already been raised to a Birmingham judge and a ruling is expected soon.