Safety of online drug sales

The Abe administration has included online drug sales in its economic growth strategy, which Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet endorsed June 14. The decision means that more than 99 percent of nonprescription drugs could be sold over the Internet.

One cannot avoid the impression that the government adopted this measure under the slogan of pushing deregulation, skipping the step of carefully considering the issue of drug safety.

It is bizarre that a government would treat drug sales over the Internet as a component of its economic growth strategy. It is also unclear whether such sales will contribute to the nation’s economic growth.

The Cabinet decision testifies to the shallowness of the Abe administration’s growth strategy. It must not be forgotten that the Cabinet made the decision after ignoring the opposition of many Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers, who pointed to the danger of possible side effects from nonprescription drugs.

In 2009 the revised Pharmaceutical Affairs Law went into force. At that time, the health and welfare ministry issued an ordinance dividing nonprescription drugs into three categories in accordance with the seriousness 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.

But the Supreme Court’s Second Petit Bench ruled 4-0 on Jan. 11 that the ministry’s ban on the sale of nonprescription drugs over the Internet is null and void. Following the Supreme Court ruling, online sales of nonprescription drugs have spread.

The Supreme Court ruling should not be taken to mean that the government is prohibited from taking necessary measures to ensure the safety of nonprescription drugs. If the safety issue is taken seriously, drugs in the first category should not be allowed to be sold online because many of these drugs were originally available only with a prescription from doctors or dentists.

The health and welfare ministry appears to have retreated under political pressure. The first category includes some 100 drugs. The ministry has decided to treat only 25 types of drugs — some from the first category, which were formerly categorized as prescription drugs — as well as “powerful drugs” as exceptions to the Cabinet’s decision because their safety has not been firmly established.

Some 1,220 cases of serious side effects from nonprescription drugs were reported from fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2011, including 24 deaths. Some cases were caused by second-category drugs, such as cold drugs, painkillers and antipyretics. This record suggests that the ministry needs to ban more drugs from online sales.

Sales of nonprescription drugs over the Internet are convenient to people living in remote areas, but people cannot be trusted to read the accompanying instructions. Therefore pharmacists should fully explain possible side effects through e-mail or telephone to consumers. The government should devise ways to ensure the safety of drugs sold over the Internet.