Why America Is The Worst Place To Buy Glasses

No one else requires a doctor to just replace your contacts

Photo by David Travis

When you live in Sri Lanka, someone coming from abroad is a godsend. You try to ship as much stuff as they will tolerate because you don’t know when you’ll next get access to Amazon or the wonderful world of international (ie, American) eCommerce.

Hence I was looking through Warby Parker for some new glasses when I ran into a wall. To buy glasses you need not only the numbers of your prescription, but an actual prescription from a doctor. Which is odd.

Last time I was in America and I also had to pay for an eye-exam at Warby Parker, to a doctor they kept under some stairs, like a troll collecting tolls.

In Sri Lanka or Europe or anywhere in the world you can just walk into an optometrist and get the glasses or contacts you need. If you need a prescription they’ll do a simple eye test — for zero or like $2 here — and you’re on your way. We have free healthcare so if you need an optometrist you can see one, and if you need to see you can see.

Internationally this is just how it is. If I buy glasses online, from Zenni for example, I just enter that prescription and I’m on my way. It’s only for American sites (like Warby, or Roka) that you run into this onerous restriction.

It is strange that this is even an issue.

If I lose my glasses in the ocean or the dog eats them I can just walk down the street to replace them or buy a pair of contacts. I don’t get checked for progressive eye disease very often, but I’m also allowed to buy antihistamines without getting my ENT checked. It’s a very curious situation in the States.

As Yascha Mounk writes in The Atlantic:

Like the citizens of virtually every other country around the world, Americans should be allowed to buy any pair of glasses or set of contact lenses at a moment’s notice. While the requirement to get a medical exam from an optometrist who has spent a minimum of seven years in higher education may have good effects in some cases, it also creates unreasonable costs — and unjustifiable suffering. (Great American Eye-Exam Scam)

The argument for having a doctor involved is that they can catch progressive eye disease, but this is a rather paternalistic attitude. It’s like if you needed to see a doctor to get birth control pills, wait in America they do that too. It’s like… if you needed to get a mammogram to buy a bra. That is one way to catch breast cancer, but a bad way to just buy a bra.

With any health issue, you’d want studies before making a change, but the fact that the US is basically the only country to do this is a pretty global double-blind study. You have to be blind to continue this extortionate policy, but the opto-lobby is strong. The whole system is essentially rent-seeking on the backs of disabled people.

America is a country that insists on no checks for guns, but significant checks for glasses. Needless to say, this is a bad combo.