- - Monday, August 18, 2014

A brighter smile can be readily available at the corner drugstore. Teeth-whitening kits — some are more effective than others, truth to tell — can be used almost anywhere where a body can bear to sit still for a few minutes without talking or eating.

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether only licensed dentists should be allowed to use kits that typically include strips or trays that allow a peroxide gel to coat and whiten teeth. Anyone who can operate a toaster or put on matching socks can handle over-the-counter whitening kits. Just not in North Carolina.

The state’s Board of Dental Examiners determined that teeth whitening is something only a professional dentist can handle. Over the past decade, the board dispatched cease-and-desist letters to companies selling the kits, all to protect the state from an epidemic of illegal whitening. By law, seven of the eight dental examiners must be practicing dentists or dental hygienists. This is sometimes called “stacking the deck.” The board tried to snuff competition by declaring discounted teeth whitening as “unauthorized practice of dentistry.”

Enabling dentists to price and apply whitening procedures is of a piece with cartels created by state licensing and regulatory boards in other states. In Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, for example, regulators require those who aspire to become fully licensed cosmetologists and perform something as simple as braiding hair to get a license. This can require up to 2,100 hours of instruction, often at a cost of more than $10,000, though hair braiders do not cut, bleach or dye hair.

To protect the public from poorly placed decorative pillows, many states have set up licensing requirements for interior decorators. The licensing schemes sometimes grandfather — or grandmother — practicing designers to the new requirement, leaving the requirement as a barrier to new entrants.

The Federal Trade Commission has been fighting the good fight against the anti-competitive practices of North Carolina’s dentists. So far, the judges of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond have backed up the trade commission’s position that the dental board has misused its authority.

The case goes before the U.S. Supreme Court in the fall. Justices shouldn’t miss this opportunity to send a message to state licensing cartels. The government shouldn’t abuse its authority even in behalf of a dull tooth or unbraided strand of hair.