The health and welfare ministry has plans to prohibit in principle mail-order and Internet sales of some drugs from June 1. Such sales reportedly totaled about ¥80 billion in 2007. It is true that using these methods to sell drugs can pose safety issues. On the other hand, some people benefit from mail-order and Internet availability of drugs, including those with mobility issues and people living in remote regions. The ministry and parties concerned need to engage in additional discussions to come up with ways of selling drugs that ensure safety and convenience.

Under the ministry plan, Internet and mail-order sales of category No. 1 and 2 nonprescription drugs under the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law will be prohibited on the grounds that it could pose health risks. These two categories account for about 70 percent of nonprescription drugs. An ordinance of the ministry coupled with the law, which was revised in 2006, would be used to enforce the prohibition.

The category No. 1 includes some hair growth drugs and drugs for the digestive system, including H2 blockers. Category No. 2 includes cold pills, antipyretic-analgesics and traditional vegetable and animal drugs known as kanpo-yaku (Chinese medicine) and sho-yaku (natural medicine). Drugs that could have strong side effects are among those being targeted by the prohibition. Many such drugs contain the same ingredients as prescription drugs. Only category No. 3 drugs, which include vitamin pills and digestives, will be allowed to be sold online and by mail-order.

To sell category No. 1 drugs, companies will have to ensure that pharmacists meet customers in person and provide mandatory explanations. To sell category No. 2 drugs, companies will have to hire pharmacists or people who have passed prefectural government tests that allow them to be registered drug sellers.

The Japan Online Drug Association, composed of companies selling drugs on the Internet, strongly opposes the ministry plan because it will greatly hamper their business. There also appears to be a turf war between the online association and chain stores. Under the ministry plan, chain stores, including convenience stores, would have the advantage of being able to sell category No. 2 drugs if they hire registered drug sellers.

Responding to the opposition to the ministry’s plan, health and welfare minister Yoichi Masuzoe set up a discussion meeting attended by parties concerned. They included representatives of companies supporting the plan and associations of people who have suffered drug-induced health problems as well representatives of companies opposing the plan.

Companies selling drugs via the Internet say that the ministry does not have the right to deprive disabled people, elderly people and people living in remote regions of the right to purchase drugs via the Internet. A group of companies engaged in route-sales of drugs, which stands to benefit from the ministry’s plan, however, support it.

Although the availability of drugs online is convenient for people with mobility issues, it has caused problems. Toward the end of last year, a person attempted suicide by taking a large amount of an antipyretic-analgesic drug purchased via the Internet. Cases of impaired liver functions caused by drugs bought via the Internet have also been reported. These cases point to the existence of companies that sell drugs online without paying attention to safety issues. The possibility that some Web sites are selling illegal or bogus drugs also cannot be discounted.

A proposal from companies opposing the ministry plan calls for stores or companies selling drugs online to place the names of their pharmacists and their license numbers on their Web sites so customers can confirm their qualifications. Still, this does not address the possibility of customers providing false information to Internet drug stores in order to access drugs for improper use.

Firms selling nonprescription drugs on the Internet should devise rules to boost safety, such as making it mandatory to provide thorough explanations of drugs being sold, including their possible side effects, and prohibiting the sales of drugs in large quantities. They also need to work closely with the ministry and drugmakers and be open to their advice.

Another category of firms selling drugs via mail-order are those making and selling traditional vegetable- and animal-based drugs. They consult with customers over the phone, learn about their health conditions, give them advice and sell them drugs. Most of these firms have histories spanning more than 100 years. According to an association of 36 such firms, more than ¥5 billion of their annual ¥8 billion in sales are mail-based. If the ministry determines that these firms are very careful and professional in their dealings with customers, it should give them special consideration.

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