Many Canadians are overpaying for prescription glasses due to weak competition in the market and strict eye-test regulations that make it hard for consumers to shop around, a Marketplace investigation reveals.

A pair of glasses can cost upwards of $1,000, with the most expensive part being the lenses. But an industry insider said quality generic lenses that will serve most people are mass-produced and can cost as little as $2 to $10 to make.

Even lenses that need more work will cost between $20 and $50 to produce, said Bruce Bergez, a former optician from Hamilton, Ont., who used to own the retail chain Great Glasses.

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The CBC's Marketplace discovers how cheap a pair of glasses really is, compares prices among stores, examines the giant that dominates the industry, and looks at whether the eyecare establishment is protecting its own interests.

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"In a pair of glasses you have one, two, three, four, screws. [A] pair of lenses made out of plastic, OK? Either metal frames or plastic frames," he told CBC's Marketplace. "It seems to me incredibly odd that has to sell for four, five, six hundred dollars."

Bergez said it's the established players — both retailers and those regulating the optometry industry — that are keeping the cost of glasses high.

Competition in the market may be an optical illusion, as LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical and Sunglass Hut are all owned by multinational firm Luxottica.

The company also designs and manufactures almost all of the designer brand frames sold inside their stores, from Ray-Ban and Oakley, to Prada, Versace and Chanel, according to their website.

Prices related to 'fashion': LensCrafters

When asked why glasses can be so expensive, the vice-president of operations for LensCrafters, Dominic Guglielmi, said, "We can correlate it to the fashion in clothing."

"These are designer brands. These brands have cachet … I mean Chanel has a pricing position in the market. And they have that same pricing position whether it's eyeglasses, purses, shoes, etc."

One option for consumers who want more bang for their buck is to shop online, such as at ClearlyContacts.ca. Frames start as low as $38, according to their TV commercial, and the web portal offers most of the same designer brands.

However, a would-be buyer needs a prescription and a key detail not usually disclosed to glass wearers — their pupillary distance, or PD. This refers to the distance between a person's pupils and ensures that the eyes and lenses are properly aligned.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult for a consumer to measure PD themselves, and most written prescriptions or stores do not offer this information.

When asked by a Marketplace producer for her PD, a Pearle Vision clerk responded that they were not allowed to divulge that information.

Only doctors can prescribe glasses in Ontario

Bergez's chain, Great Glasses, was offering free, simple sight tests and cheap eyeglasses, prompting the College of Optometrists of Ontario to take him to court.

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The college's rules and provincial laws dictate that only doctors can prescribe glasses.

Bergez was ordered to stop but continued to defy the rules and was fined millions of dollars.

The battle went all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada, but the top court refused to hear his appeal. 

Bergez was eventually sentenced to a year in jail.

In the end, the former optician lost his house and his business, and still owes more than $17 million — the biggest contempt fine in Canadian history.

Bergez said most often, his customers just wanted to improve the strength of their eyeglasses or change for fashion purposes.

"The machine, I never felt was prescribing," he said.

Industry protecting own interests, former optician says

Bergez is viewed by some as a folk hero, challenging the eyeglass industry, while others say he was flouting the rules to make a buck.

He said the rules serve to protect the industry's profits.

"They say they're protecting the public, but really at the end of the day, they're protecting their self interests."

In B.C., however, the rules around how eyewear is dispensed are changing.

In both brick-and-mortar and online stores, opticians are allowed to sell glasses after doing a simple sight test — the same kind of tests that got Bergez in trouble in Ontario. As well, customers in B.C. also get their pupillary distance information included in every prescription.

But the registrar of the College of Optometrists of Ontario, Paula Garshowitz, said a simple test for new glasses can't replace a full eye exam.

"Through the course of the exam, the optometrist may arrive at information that actually there is undetected eye disease that made the patients vision blurry, not a change in their prescription," said Garshowitz.

When asked why Ontario prescriptions do not include a person's PD, Garshowitz said, "It is not part of the required clinical information for the provision of a prescription."

Until the rules change, Bergez said he plans to move to B.C. and open up a new store there.

"We'd like to stay in Ontario but circumstances dictate the political climate is better in British Columbia. … We're all Canadians, it should be one playing field across the country — and it's not," Bergez said.