SmileDirectClub, which specializes in straightening peoples’ teeth, is gaining a reputation for squashing any kind of negative press, The New York Times (NYT) reported on Tuesday (Jan. 21). The report included stories of seven people who said SmileDirectClub’s products did not fix their teeth as advertised, but, in fact, caused new problems that did not exist before.
In one case, Denver-based Taylor Weakley, an environmental scientist, ordered a retainer to fix crowding in her teeth. The product did not fix the issue as promised. When she tried to get a refund, the company engaged her in a lengthy back-and-forth, and eventually told her she had to sign a confidentiality agreement before the refund would come through. She told the NYT that she couldn’t speak about anything else.
SmileDirectClub’s actions in Weakley’s case weren’t a one-time incident. Other patients reported similar troubles with their products, some of which even required additional dental procedures to correct. In some cases, SmileDirectClub products reportedly caused people to develop an open bite, where their teeth didn’t touch when they bit down.
The company, founded in 2014 by a pair of childhood friends, works like this: People can make a mold of their own teeth at home with equipment sent to them in the mail, or they can get their teeth scanned at one of 300 “Smile Shop” retail locations. From there, one of the company’s 250 dentists will review a mold, usually without direct interaction with the customer. The patient signs a consent form, and a retainer — which costs about one-third of what traditional braces cost — is sent to them in the mail. The company offers refunds for 30 days, but not at all after that, according to NYT.
Legal representatives have said that the company has had almost flawless satisfaction. The website has more than 100,000 reviews posted, and nearly all of them are at least 4.9 out of five stars.
However, that doesn’t reflect the experiences some people have had, and they can’t report this due to being forced to sign confidentiality agreements to get their refunds. According to the company’s legal team, the measures it takes are necessary to protect itself from smear campaigns and disingenuous actors.
Arthur L. Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine, said some of SmileDirectClub’s actions were practically tantamount to bullying. The company sued the parent of website Lifehacker for defamation and libel after Lifehacker wrote about the risks of SmileDirectClub products. It has also sued state dental boards that have tried to institute policies that would make it harder for SmileDirectClub to operate.
California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law last October, requiring dentists to review a patient’s recent X-rays before doing orthodontic procedures. That caused the company’s shares to drop 12.9 percent. In response, SmileDirectClub sued the state, with representatives saying state dental boards were trying to squash competition.
SmileDirectClub grew quickly after its founding, thanks to a $440 million funding drop from venture capital firms and private investors. It also courted popular celebrities and public figures for advertising. In its IPO, the company raised $1.29 billion, and it had more than 750,000 customers as of 2018.