GILBERT, AZ - A civil trial began Monday in a case by an Arizona salon owner who is challenging an order from cosmetology regulators that forced her to stop offering pedicures that use fish to nibble the dead skin off people's feet.
Cindy Vong opened a fish spa within her nail salon in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert during October 2008 but was forced to close that fish spa segment of her business nearly a year later. The closure was prompted by the state's Board of Cosmetology, which said the practice was illegal because the fish were a tool for skin exfoliation that couldn't be sanitized in between uses.
Vong said the practice poses no health risks, prompted no complaints from clients and that the treatments, which cost $30 for 20 minutes, were popular and profitable. "There is not a single instance of harm attributable to fish spas in the entire world," said Clint Bolick, a lawyer for the libertarian-leaning Goldwater Institute, who is pressing Vong's case in court.
Fish pedicures are popular in Asia and spread to some U.S. cities in recent years. But Texas, Washington, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have outlawed the practice because of health concerns.
Lawyers made brief opening statements Monday during the first day of Vong's two-day trial. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge George Foster Jr. will decide the case.
Attorneys representing the Board of Cosmetology pointed out that Vong signed an agreement to close the fish spa operation that said the fish pedicures are part of the practice of cosmetology and pose health risks. Vong's lawyers said she signed the agreement to bring the case to court.
Evan Hiller, an attorney for the board, said regulators properly applied the same rules to fish pedicures as they do to other facets of cosmetology, such as scissors that must be disinfected after a customer's haircut. But Hiller said fish can't be disinfected and, thus, carry the risk of disease.
Vong said she spent $40,000 setting up her spa fish operation, including the purchase of tiny Garra Rufa fish from China. She lost that investment and had to fire employees after regulators forced her to close the spa fish operation. Vong isn't seeking monetary damages and instead wants a declaration that her constitutional rights were violated.
Her case was dismissed in May 2010. It was revived by a state appeals court that ruled fish pedicures fall under the board's regulation but also concluded the spa owner could continue to press claims that her due-process and equal protection rights were violated. Her lawsuit said Vong wants her right to pursue a legitimate business interest vindicated.