A Gilbert salon owner whose flesh-eating fish once nibbled the dead skin from her customers' feet is biting back after the Arizona Board of Cosmetology ordered a halt to the service.
The Goldwater Institute filed a lawsuit Monday on behalf of Cindy Vong, owner of LaVie Nails & Spa at Ray Road and Val Vista Drive, saying the regulatory body overstepped its bounds when ordering her in January to stop the fish pedicures.
Clint Bolick, the Goldwater Institute's director of litigation, could not be reached for comment Monday, but a statement from the group said the order "violates Ms. Vong's freedom of enterprise under the state and federal constitutions."
"The board knows nothing about spa fish therapy, so its reaction is to shut it down," Bolick said in the statement. "The board's action is more about protecting cosmetologists from competition than it is about protecting consumers against anything except wet feet and smooth skin."
Board officials had told Vong the practice violates statutes and rules and might constitute a misdemeanor. The board argued that grooming instruments needed to be disinfected. Since the 1-inch-long garra rufa and chin chin fish can't be disinfected, they presented a health hazard to customers, the agency argued.
Donna Aune, executive director of the board, said little about the lawsuit on Monday.
"You guys knew this before me," she said. "We've been served about an hour ago, and my legal advice says I can't say anything because it's pending."
Vong started offering the $30, 20-minute fish pedicure sessions in October 2008, but stopped in April. She was facing a $750 fine and six months' probation.
Vong said she keeps the thousands of fish, also known as doctor fish, reddish log sucker and nibble fish, as pets at home.
She said she's out anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000 - the cost to set up the fish business.
"That's a (lot) of time, lots of energy, lots of money involved," she said.
She said she also had to lay off three employees as a result of the board's action.
The purpose of the fish treatment, which some describe as feeling like a mild electrical current on the skin, is to smooth the feet and relax the customer.
The practice, popular in countries around the world, had caught on in the United States, but some states like Maryland and Florida have begun banning the practice over similar health concerns.