Lisa Martinez vs The Dentists’ Cartel

Be a dentist, you’ll be a success. 

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Dentists earn above-average wages because they possess highly specialized skills that most of us lack, and no one should begrudge them that. But dentists have also gotten quite canny at padding their earnings by enacting regulatory restrictions on the provision of tooth-related services by non-dentists even if the service in question doesn’t actually require a dentist’s specialized skills. According to the Food and Drug Administration, for example, tooth-whitening products are perfectly safe to sell over the counter and be applied at home by anyone who cares to do it. But in Connecticut the Connecticut Dental Commission has ruled that only dentists may provide tooth-whitening services as a business. It’s safe to do for yourself at home, but not safe enough to pay a non-dentist to do for you. Consequently, Lisa Martinez who’d been running a perfectly nice tooth whitening business before the ruling came down has had to close up her shop. Conveniently enough, by statute six of the nine members of the Commission that made the ruling must be dentists, so it’s no surprise that they came down on the side of dentists making more money.

One are in which this comes up all the time is dental hygenists. You’ll notice that if you don’t have serious tooth problems, at your regular bi-annual dentist appointments you don’t actually get treated by a dentist. Instead, a dental hygenist cleans your teeth. The reason the hygenist does it rather than a degree-wielding dentist is that the hygenist is less trained and earns lower wages. But why don’t hygenists go into business for themselves doing routine tooth-cleaning? Well, because commissions across the country have made that illegal. In order to clean teeth you don’t have to be a dentist, you just need to work for a dentist and let one profit off your work.

Tooth-whitening is the same kind of deal. Dentists don’t actually spend their time doing this stuff. It doesn’t require their training or their skills. They just want to make sure that the people who do the work need to work for them. The Institute of Justice, who’s handling Martinez’s lawsuit seeking relief from the rule, says that the result can be up to a 400 percent increase* in the prices paid by the consumer. As tooth-whitening services have increased in popular, these kind of restrictions have spread across the country like wildfire. It’s a crappy regressive transfer from customers and the Lisa Martinezes of the world to higher-income dentists.

* Correction: November 28, 2011. An earlier version of this post misstated the price mismatch between what dentists and non-dentists charge for tooth whitening.