Culture News

Goldwater Institute Sues Cosmetology Board Over Closure of "Spa Fish" Pedicure Business

Cindy Vong's a Vietnamese immigrant who opened LaVie Nail Salon in Gilbert in 2006, and introduced "spa fish" therapy to the city in 2008. 

During a typical treatment (20 minutes for $30), salon customers would sit with their feet in a tank full of Garra Rufa fish imported from China, and within an hour, the toothless carp, dubbed "doctor fish," would consume the dead skin around the customers' feet.

Sure, it might sound like something out of Lake Placid or Piranha, but Vong's business was nothing new -- Garra Rufa have been used since the 1800s in Turkey, and the treatment is currently legal in Ohio, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and Missouri. But "fish therapy" hasn't spread without controversy -- it's currently banned in 14 other states, and it's kept Vong in court for the last two years.

On Friday, The Goldwater Institutea Phoenix-based conservative public policy research organization, argued at the Maricopa County Superior Court that the Arizona Board of Cosmetology's current ban on the treatment is unconstitutional. 

Shortly after Vong introduced the treatment in her Gilbert salon, Arizona Board of Cosmetology inspectors visited the salon in October and November of 2008 and voiced their concerns that the flesh-eating fish treatment wasn't permitted under state regulations.

Vong received a letter from board Executive Director Sue Sansom in early 2009 that said she was violating the agency's safety standards. The letter said Vong could face criminal charges if she didn't remove the fish from her salon. And while Vong quickly removed the fish from their tanks and canceled appointments, she laid the groundwork for her appeal.

Long before she installed the fish tanks, Vong drafted a safety protocol for her salon -- she inspected her customers' feet for cuts and abrasions before they were cleared for treatment, feet were cleaned with antibacterial soap before and after treatment, and fresh water was used for every treatment.

She enlisted the Goldwater Institute, claiming the board had overreached its authority -- that it had no regulations on spa fish, and was therefore unconstitutionally applying regulations to her business. 

"Cindy Vong has a right to earn an honest living, and the board has no business shutting down her spa fish therapy," says Carrie Ann Sitren, a staff attorney with the Goldwater Institute. "This case stands for entrepreneurs who think outside the box, especially during times when economy is not so great."

The board countered, claiming the business practice was unsanitary and ran the risk of spreading bacteria and disease through any open wounds on the foot. 

"Fish Pedicures are not within the scope of practice of cosmetology nor of nail technology," Sansom wrote in a letter to Vong in 2009. "Any tool or piece of equipment used in a pedicure must be stored in a dry storage and disinfected in a very specific way and it is impossible to disinfect fish coming in contact with your clients' skin in the required manner." 

Sitren says the court will decide whether the ban is unconstitutional within the next two months. 

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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton