The World Council of Optometry (WCO) has expressed serious concern about deregulation of the optical market due to take effect in the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) this week.

The new regulations remove restrictions that permit only optometrists, opticians or those supervised by them, to dispense spectacles or contact lenses, and allow online sales without an eye examination or an optometrist's prescription or specification (News 26.03.10).

The WCO, whose secretariat is hosted by the College of Optometrists, has written to the BC Premier and health minister saying that the changes 'fundamentally undermine the existing high standards of practice and public protection by optometrists'.

In its statement, the WCO raised three issues in particular: refraction separated from eye health examinations and carried out by dispensing opticians online ordering of contact lenses without a specification and the requirement for PD measurement to be included on prescriptions.

'By ignoring available evidence about risks to public health and not consulting adequately with the professions involved about public health, preventable visual impairment and risk, the Ministry has put the commercial interests of online retailers ahead of the welfare and health needs of the public that they serve, ultimately putting them at risk of harm,' the statement said.

The WCO also suggested that a final decision is yet to be made regarding the 'proposed changes'.

But the BC health minister this week showed little sign of backing down. 'With advances in technology and more consumers turning to the internet, it makes sense to modernise a decades-old system to give British Columbians more choice while maintaining public safety.'

The BC government has said there is 'no strong scientific evidence that regular eye health exams for healthy individuals between the ages of 19 and 65 improve health outcomes'.

Speaking at the College of Optometrists' annual general meeting earlier this month, chief executive Bryony Pawinska voiced the College's concern about 'stand-alone refraction' in BC, which she said had resulted from external commercial pressures. She added that there was similar pressure on the General Optical Council in the UK.

The BC legislation is reported to have been prompted by a court case last year between Vancouver-based internet supplier Coastal Contacts and the College of Opticians of BC.