A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry committee is having a tough time choosing over-the-counter medicines that can be sold in convenience stores in the face of opposition to deregulation.

The study committee began the selection process in September in response to the government’s decision in June to allow convenience stores to sell comparatively safe drugs over the counter.

The move is aimed at enhancing consumer convenience.

The government took the step after mulling the lack of face-to-face contact between consumers and pharmacists during sales of such items as eye drops and cold remedies.

Committee discussions began by focusing on the inordinate control by pharmacists over what medicines can be sold over the counter.

The Drugs, Cosmetics and Medical Instruments Law limits the sale of over-the-counter drugs in principle to pharmacies and drug stores where pharmacists are on duty.

Pharmacology specialists and consumer representatives on the committee voiced concerns over the government decision, questioning whether there are drugs that pose no safety problems and whether there is really a need for such items to be sold in convenience stores.

The panel’s discussions have included popular medicines that do not require prescriptions, but deregulation opponents say the ministry has received about 950 reports of adverse effects resulting from over-the-counter drugs.

Most of the cases involved side effects reportedly caused by cold remedies and pain killers. But there were also cases of serious skin eruptions, liver disorders and shock.

Opponents fear that the number of people taking medicines carelessly will rise if convenience stores start handling drugs.

Yukari Masuyama, a victim of the drug thalidomide, which caused deformation of limbs in unborn babies, said, “Damage from thalidomide rose (in Japan) because it was sold over the counter (in drug stores). What is genuinely convenient for consumers are drugs that cause no side effects and are taken appropriately. What is important is not deregulation but the creation of an environment for the safe use of medicines.”

It is not clear what medicines will be selected at this stage, but Hiroshi Saito, a professor emeritus at Tokyo University and chairman of the study committee, said: “Pharmacists are to be blamed for their lack of effort (in the sale of over-the-counter medicines). We want to come up with an answer to how popular drugs should be handled.”

Tatsuyoshi Kuwabara, a pharmacist who runs a drug store in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, has been making sure consumers will not have easy access to popular medicines at his store. He puts eye drops, cold medicines and other drugs available without prescriptions on shelves behind the counter, where they are out of consumers’ reach.

Kuwabara said there are many kinds of cold remedy under the same product name but which differ in their ingredients and effects, some of them possibly dangerous.

He also believes it is dangerous for consumers to choose medicines themselves because it takes special knowledge to select particular drugs.

“Basically this is the way medicines ought to be sold,” Kuwabara said. “It is not permissible (for pharmacists) to sell drugs without giving explanations.”

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