Consumers pay about 32 percent less for eyeglasses and eye exams in areas when optometrists advertise, according to a landmark report issued yesterday by the Federal Trade Commission.
The report also said that the quality of service is as good in cities with optical advertising as in those without it.
The report was good news to those who have advocated wider advertising of professional services but it was criticized by those who oppose it.
Supporters predicted the report would bolster the movement by chain stores to offer dental and medical services. In the past the chains avoided those areas because of advertising restrictions; more recently they have offered the services under a cloud of charges that services that were advertised were inferior to the services of professionals who did not.
In recent years, doctors, lawyers, and other professional groups -- under pressure by the FTC, the Justice Department and Surpeme Court decisions -- have moved to lift restrictions prohibiting advertising by their professions.
FTC economists said they decided to focus their study on optometrists because restrictions to them have varied widely by states and localities.
There are no restrictions on eyeglass advertising in Washington, one of the cities surveyed by the FTC, or any other local jurisdiction.
Sheldon Fantle, president of Peoples Drug Stores, said the FTC report now promises new opportunities for businesses and lower health costs for consumers. Fantle has been a longtime advocate of advertising services such as optometry.
"I think this will open more avenues . . . this will give us greater opportunities in other areas, such as hearing aids, diagnostic and home health care items," he said.
Opponents of the advertising were just as quick to challenge the FTC's conclusion on quality. Dr. Alden N. Haffner, associate chancellor for health sciences for the State University of New York, said the quality of examinations "deteriorates" when advertising is allowed and that the FTC report proves his position.
Haffner said that the report found that the quality of the eye exams -- one of four criteria studies -- was less at optomertric firms that advertised.
"Professional services do not belong in the marketplace and what the FTC study definitely shows is that when those services are under commerical sponsorship, they deteriorate," Haffner said.
The FTC Bureau of Economics, which spent three years researching and compiling the report, said the differences Haffner cited were only one of the measures used to determine quality. The bureau said the thoroughness of the exam in cities with advertising was comparable to the thoroughness of exams in cities advertising is allowed and that the FTC report proves his position.
Haffner worked with the FTC on the project, helping to train the survey workers, and is mentioned in the report's acknowledgements.
Ronald S. Bond, one of the report's authors, describe the FTC effort as a "landmark" study and the most comprehensive research into price and quality of professional optical services that has been made to date.
During the project work, 19 trained researchers were sent to optometrists to have their eyes examined and to buy eyeglasses. The eyeglasses later were checked by the FTC for accuracy.
Prices paid for the eyeglasses were recorded and the eye examinations given by the optometrists were analyzed for thoroughness, accuracy of prescription and accuracy of eyeglasses.
The fourth point of the quality test was whether the eyeglasses had been prescribed unnecessarily.
FTC researchers concluded that optometrists who advertised did not prescribe unneeded eyeglasses any more frequently than optometrists who do not advertise.
Eyeglasses prices in cities without advertising averaged $95, the FTC survey found. The average in cities with advertising was $72 -- a difference of 32 percent.
In the areas where there was advertising, the lowest prices were at the chain stores, which charged an average of $63. Optometrists who advertised charged an average of $65. The most expensive glasses in these cities were the nonadvertising optometrists, who charged $75.
The FTC sent its researchers to optometrists in five cities with little or no advertising -- Knoxville, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark., Providence, R.I.; Columbia, S.C., and Greensboro, N.C.
Besides Washington, the cities with advertising that the FTC surveyed were Baltimore, Minneapolis-St. Paul; Milwaukee; Portland, Ore.; Columbus, Ohio, and Seattle.