Rules for online drug sales

The government panel tasked with recommending regulations reform has decided to give top priority in its discussions to the sale of nonprescription drugs over the Internet, along with such issues as the entry of commercial companies into the field of day-care services for children and the liberalization of sale of electricity.

Because even nonprescription drugs can cause serious side effects, the government should work out rules that will maximize both safety and convenience for consumers.

On Jan. 11, the Supreme Court’s Second Petit Bench ruled 4-0 that the health and welfare ministry’s ban on the sale of nonprescription drugs over the Internet is null and void. Since the ruling, some mail order companies have started vigorously selling such drugs over the Internet, including drugs whose sale over the Internet had been prohibited. Such sales will likely expand in the absence of rules to regulate them. Some companies have even started selling hair tonics that could cause health problems for people with heart disease. Certain rules are clearly necessary. For example, consumers should be strongly urged to read drug instructions, including warnings of possible side affects, prior to use of the product.

In June 2009, when the revised Pharmaceutical Affairs Law went into force, the health and welfare ministry issued an ordinance dividing nonprescription drugs into three categories in accordance with the intensity of their possible side effects.

Drugs of the first category were to be sold only by pharmacists while drugs of the second and third categories could be sold by either pharmacists or registered drug sellers.

Only nonprescription drugs in the third category, such as vitamins, were allowed to be sold online.

Despite the Jan. 11 Supreme Court ruling, major mail order companies, supermarkets and convenience stores have refrained from selling drugs in the first and second categories over the Internet. But this may change.

Online sales are convenient for people who are too busy, have mobility problems or live in remote areas. But convenience should not take priority over safety. Associations of patients and consumers point out that expert warnings are necessary not only about the risks of nonprescription drugs themselves but also about the risks of combined use of prescription and nonprescription drugs. The government should heed their concerns.

It will be difficult to legally restrict the sale of nonprescription drugs over the Internet. The health and welfare ministry has set up a panel to work out rules for such sales together with consumers, patients and mail-order firms.

It would be unreasonable to completely liberalize the sale of nonprescription drugs over the Internet in the absence of a system that will ensure that consumers fully understand the correct use of drugs and the measures that they should take when they suffer from the unwelcome side effects of drugs.

But a system is needed to ban online sellers who provide misleading or false information about drugs. The ministry panel has great responsibility. It should collect sufficient data and equip itself with relevant knowledge to prevent the possible excess of the government’s panel on regulations reform.