Net retailers back in drug business

PHOTO: Net retailers back in drug business

JAPAN - Many online retailers expressed their enthusiasm to resume or enter the online drug sales market after the Supreme Court ruled a blanket restriction on such sales was illegal and invalid.

While Friday's ruling liberalizes online sales of nonprescription drugs for the time being, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry will decide on new regulations over such sales.

People suffering from medication-induced health problems voiced concern that the deregulation could result in product safety being neglected.

After the ruling, Genri Goto, 45, president of Inc., one of plaintiffs in the lawsuit the court was ruling on, said at a press conference in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district, "Safety and convenience can be compatible."

Just 1-1/2 hours after the ruling, the Tokyo-based online retailer resumed sales of Category 1 drugs, which are believed to have a high risk of side effects.

The company said from it will enhance its communication with customers via telephone and e-mail and increase the number of pharmacists.

An official of Yokohama-based Wellnet Corp., the other plaintiff, said: "As the right to sell was approved, we're also preparing to start selling Category 1 and 2 medicine online."

Other companies have also taken actions following the top court's ruling.

An official of Rakuten Inc., which operates an online shopping site, said: "We welcome the ruling. We'll improve conditions so retailers on our site can safely sell nonprescription medicine."

Yahoo Japan Corp. also announced it would begin online sales of drugs.

While the ruling is likely to lead to a rapid expansion in online drug sales, concerns about such liberalization remain deep-rooted.

According to the health ministry, over the five years to fiscal 2011 there were 1,220 reported cases of side effects to nonprescription drugs, such as acute hepatitis.

There are also fears an increasing number of people will try to use the easily available drugs to commit suicide.

According to the Japan Poison Information Center, it handled 245 cases in which people attempted to kill themselves with nonprescription medicine in 2011.

Kazue Yuasa, 60, a representative of an association of patients of Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS), a side effect of medicine that causes severe skin blisters, said: "I'm worried about whether necessary information can properly be provided to patients in online sales.

"Risks and responsibilities will be passed on only to members of the public, who may not have this knowledge."

However, Yoji Ochiai, a lawyer and expert on Internet-related issues, said: "Online sales make it possible to reduce the risk of abuse and medication-related incidents, as retailers can issue customer IDs or set up a system to prevent orders from being filled unless side effects notices are read.

"There's no doubt online sales would improve consumers' convenience. So the government should relax the regulations," he said.

Keio University Prof. Mayumi Mochizuki, an expert in medicine, said: "Current nonprescription drug sales focus on safety...with pharmacies providing customers information directly.

"However, at online retailers, consumers can click yes or no to questions about their condition on computer screens. I'm doubtful about whether safety can be ensured."