Over the counter adjustable eyewear debated in House of Lords

Parliamentary minister says Opticians Act will only be amended only after “very careful consideration”

An amendment to the Opticians Act to allow the sale of adjustable-focus spectacles over-the-counter has been debated in the House of Lords this week.

Lord Newby, the Liberal Democrat life peer, posed the question on Monday night (8 February) in the House, while wearing a pair of adjustable-focus spectacles by Oxford-based manufacturer, Adlens. 

Responding on behalf of the government, Lord Prior, the Parliament Under-secretary of State for the Department of Health, said the government was not looking to consult on the issue in the near future. 

Having heard support for the motion from a range of peers in the House, Lord Prior noted the “genuine objections” raised by the General Optical Council's (GOC) standards committee following an independent report by Professor Neil Charman of the University of Manchester into adjustable-focus eyewear.

Lord Prior told the House: “It is important to be clear that a sight test is not only about checking whether or not you need glasses… A sight test can identify at an early stage diseases such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and cataracts.”

Lord Prior highlighted that good vision is “particularly important for safety on our roads, both for drivers and pedestrians, and recognised the concern raised by the GOC in respect of the safety of drivers using these self-adjustable glasses.” He added that “even if the concerns I have outlined were overcome, it would be very difficult to justify a greater range for the adjustable, and arguably more risky, product than is allowed for ready readers.”

Lord Prior concluded: “In order to do what the noble Lord asks it would be necessary to amend the Opticians Act to remove requirements relating to the sale and supply of optical appliances. 

“Clearly this is something we would do only after very careful consideration, and if we were confident that the proposal could stand parliamentary scrutiny. So if we were to take this forward at all, an independent review of some kind would be a requirement.”

In his support of over-the-counter sales of adjustable-focus spectacles, Lord Newby said the non-prescription sales of reading glasses had not affected the number of sight tests in the UK.

He said: “Since over-the-counter reading glasses became available in 1989, the number of eye tests has been on a steadily rising curve and has continued to rise steadily over the past 15 years, despite the growth of online contact lenses and online glasses.”

He concluded: “There is no evidence that the product is unsafe to use while driving. There have been literally zero reported cases of driving accidents in Japan and the USA involving the million-plus consumers who wear variable focus eyewear.”

The Optical Confederation endorsed the objections raised by the GOC’s standards committee to the law change, issuing a briefing document to peers in advance of Monday’s debate.

Reflecting on the range of views within the debate, the AOP’s professional adviser, Geoff Roberson, told OT: “We take comfort from the Minister’s statement that the government does not intend to change current legislation and amend the Opticians Act, but the comments made by many of the peers who spoke, where consumer choice seems to be a higher priority than eye health, road and public safety, is very worrying.”

Mr Roberson added: “It is self evident to us that allowing the public to buy off-the-shelf spectacles without a prescription will reduce the number of people having sight tests, and therefore increase the amount of undetected eye disease. However, this does not seem to be a concern of those who spoke during the debate and we need to work hard to try and inform those who support Lord Newby’s proposal.”

Asked how the views held by the Peer can be challenged, Mr Roberson said: “We will focus our efforts on promoting the great work undertaken by AOP members in sight loss prevention and ensuring the public health message and the risks posed by unrestricted sales of this type of device are understood and take priority.”

Read more about Adlens' plans for 2016