Enforce fairly or scrap rules

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Would you go to a doctor who didn’t have a medical license? Even if he or she had gotten straight A’s in med school, I’d be nervous about trusting my health to a person who didn’t have the state’s stamp of approval.

Yet across Clark County, people whose work could affect your health or your pocketbook are operating without the licenses. In some cases, the state is fighting to shut them down. In others, officials just look the other way.

Few people would say tattoo artists play the same central role in our lives as doctors. But if you choose to shell out your hard-earned cash for permanent ink at an unlicensed parlor, you could be putting your health at risk.

Artists need to use sterile needles and take great care to avoid spreading blood-borne infections. On July 1, Washington caught up with other states by requiring tattoo parlors to prove they know how to be safe.

Yet six months after the rule went into effect, most of Clark County’s tattoo shops still don’t meet these requirements. And the state agency in charge of enforcing these rules doesn’t seem too concerned.

“Right now, we are in education mode,” said Christine Anthony, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Licensing, which also credentials real estate professionals, architects, travel agencies and funeral homes.

“We wouldn’t penalize anyone at this moment in time,” Anthony said. “We’re still trying to educate them and bring them on board.”

She couldn’t tell me when consequences will kick in.

This looks like a case of the government going easy on businesses, instead of adding costs and burdens. Sounds great.

But when regulations are unevenly enforced, people who play by the rules are put at a competitive disadvantage.

Mace Bracken, owner of Vancouver-based Altered Reality Tattoo, said he feels cheated. His shop has paid $1,650 to license its three artists.

“I don’t mind paying the money because of what the rules stand for,” Bracken said. “But when other people don’t do it, too, it’s not fair.”

There are two possible solutions to this sort of problem.

If it’s a bad rule, get rid of it. Preventing the spread of disease by requiring tattoo parlours to understand blood-borne pathogens and follow hygiene rules seems like a good idea, so we should stick with it. But that’s a public policy decision, and if health experts or the people of Washington disagree, then maybe the rule should go away.

The other option, if we all agree that the rules should stay: Enforce them. Or try at least.

Officials at the state Department of Labor and Industries will attest to the challenge staying ahead of rule breakers poses. They regulate construction contractors and go to great lengths to shut down folks who are not licensed.

Those who do have L&I licenses still are frustrated at the rulebreakers, but at least the state’s not looking the other way.

It’s an injury to the universal principle of fairness when the state pockets $1,650 from one business, then does nothing more than wag its finger at the guy next door who doesn’t play by the rules.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.