Eaten Alive By Regulation: Innovation Fatigue and Fish Therapy

“This is something that is dangerous and clearly unsanitary,” warned New York senator Jeffrey Klein in October 2009. “Once we shed light on this dirty little process, more people will avoid it and we can ban it.” The terrifying menace that so worried the good state senator and led him to introduce legislation to ban it is a natural therapy that has been used successfully for 400 years to treat the skin of feet. 400 years of successful, healthy treatments in the form of fish pedicures. In the US, though, the process is very foreign and has a certain squirm factor to it. Small fish that nibble at dead skin are a relatively common treatment offered in several parts of Asia, but in the West, worried officials have been applying or creating various regulations to fight against the invasion of new options for beauty care, one of many highly regulated business areas where innovation fatigue often comes from the burdensome and sometimes unpredictable applications of regulation.

In the US, approximately 15 states have banned fish pedicures. Some regulators say that they require tools used for pedicures to be completely sterilized after each treatment, which would mean, of course, frying the little critters after they’ve nibbled on your feet. An expensive proposition for business owners. Several people wishing to bring this new service to their community invested heavily in the systems needed for safe, clean tanks and fish, only to have new regulations added that would single out their business and ban it.

Can’t people make their own decisions about where they stick their feet, or how they deal with their bunions? If someone wants to use a natural method that has 400 years of successful history, do we really have to tell them that they aren’t allowed to for their own good? Sure, there are risks, perhaps similar to the risk of putting one’s feet into the water at a beach or swimming pool. But regulators protecting the public from themselves with unnecessary layers of regulation and bureaucracy represent one of the most difficult and painful forms of innovation fatigue. Someday we need to allow business and innovation to flourish and just get out of the way.

Yes, I recently tried fish therapy and found it to be remarkably refreshing and effective. The fish–I think these were Chinese chin chin fish, though Middle Eastern doctor fish are most commonly used–just nibble at dead skin and leave the healthy live skin alone, so they don’t cause bleeding or irritation. It’s hard to see how this could be any more dangerous or terrifying that placing one’s foot in a lake, a stream, or swimming pool, with the exception that there are 100% organic fish like to tickle your feet. I hope to try this again.

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