Regulating online sales of drugs

The government has submitted a bill to revise the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law to the Diet on Nov. 12, aiming to set rules for the sale of nonprescription drugs over the Internet. Such rules are indispensable because some mail order companies started vigorously selling nonprescription drugs online after the Supreme Court’s Second Petit Bench ruled 4-0 on Jan. 11 that the health and welfare ministry’s ban on such sale is null and void. Some companies even started selling nonprescription drugs that could have strong side effects, including hair tonics that can cause problems for people with heart diseases. The Diet should waste no time in enacting the bill into law.

Under the law, more than 11,000 types of nonprescription drugs or 99.8 percent of such drugs could be sold online under the new regulations. It will also be important for drug stores and online drug retailers to improve their consultation services for drug users.

In writing the bill, how to treat drugs that were originally available only with a prescription from doctors or dentists became a big issue. The government eventually decided to prohibit online sale of these 23 drugs as well as five “powerful drugs.” With regard to the sale of these 28 drugs, the bill requires retail drug stores to have pharmacists explain in person to customers how to use the drugs they’re buying. The health and welfare ministry plans to shorten the time for studying the safety of drugs whose status have changed from prescription drugs to nonprescription drugs from the current four years to three years. If their safety is confirmed, they will be allowed to be sold over the Internet.

Nonprescription drugs are divided into three categories depending on the possible side effects. Under rules set down by the bill for the online sale of drugs in the first category, whose potential side effects are strong, people who want to buy them over the Internet must disclose such information as their sex, age and any chronic diseases they have to retailers. Pharmacists then email them explanations on how to use the drugs. Only after the customers send an email stating that they understand the explanations can sales be made. When users buy these drugs at drug stores, they must go through a similar procedure in person. The bill also requires online drug retailers to run their own drug stores. Online auctions will also be prohibited from selling drugs.

The Abe administration has included online drug sales in its economic growth strategy. But such sales should be treated as important part of the government’s policy to improve people’s health, not part of its economic policy. Nonprescription drugs will play an important role as Japan’s population grays. But consumers should not forget that even nonprescription drugs can have serious side effects if used incorrectly. They should develop the habit of consulting with pharmacists and other experts when they buy drugs whether at brick-and-mortar stores or online, and always read the instructions carefully before using them.