The reselling of face masks for profit will become a crime punishable by a one-year prison term or a ¥1 million ($9,800) fine — or both — as demand surged amid the growing coronavirus epidemic, the government said Tuesday.
The new rule, aimed at preventing would-be profiteers from taking advantage of a nationwide shortage of the masks, will take effect March 15.
Reselling face masks at the same price they were purchased for, or at lower prices, will still be allowed, a trade ministry official said, stressing that the rule is not meant to keep people from distributing them to friends and family.
“We want to ensure that the average consumer can get their hands on masks,” the official said.
The rule will be implemented through a revision to a law enacted in response to panic-buying during the 1973 oil crisis.
While other products such as disinfectants and diapers may be added later if deemed necessary, the government plans to lift the rule after demand returns to normal.
The ministry had asked e-commerce firms to temporarily suspend online auctions of face masks starting on March 14, but the step was not enough to discourage resellers.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to boost the country’s supply of face masks to 600 million a month, with a particular focus on providing them to nursing facilities.
But manufacturers have struggled to meet the sudden surge in demand, with empty shelves at drug stores and supermarkets becoming a common sight in recent weeks.
The problem has been exacerbated as what little stock exists is snapped up by resellers and offered at exorbitant prices via e-commerce websites such as Rakuten and Mercari.
In a prominent example of price-gouging, an assemblyman in Shizuoka Prefecture was revealed to have made ¥8.9 million off of selling packets of 2,000 face masks via online auctions for between ¥30,000 to ¥170,000 each. He later apologized.
The trade ministry official said it was unclear whether the assemblyman, 53-year-old Hiroyuki Morota, could have been charged under the new rule because he runs a trading company and may not be classified as a reseller.
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