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Monday, June 1, 2009

Ban on Internet drug sales blasted


Staff writer

Kazuyuki Sasada has been using the Internet for years to buy medicine because it is difficult for him to go around to different stores to get the drugs he needs.

"There are also many kinds of medicine that pharmacies don't normally sell," including traditional medicines and herbal drugs, says Sasada, a 60-year-old resident of Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture.

He spends about ¥80,000 to ¥100,000 a year online for his medicine, and another ¥40,000 to ¥50,000 at conventional pharmacies and drug stores.

But starting Monday, as a 2006 revision of the pharmaceutical law and a new health ministry ordinance take effect, new customers will be banned from buying many types of medicine online.

The revision will also allow outlets like convenience stores to sell around 90 percent of the types of drugs that don't require a prescription.

Sasada and others who have purchased medicine online previously, and people who live on isolated islands, will have a two-year transition period before they too are banned from making such purchases.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry claims that its ordinance, which clarifies the 2006 revision to the pharmaceutical law, is necessary because it is difficult to provide proper medicinal information if the seller and purchaser do not meet face to face.

Selling medicine online raises concerns "because it's hard to check the health condition of buyers and lacks communication (between sellers and users)," said Takashi Hashimoto, deputy director of the general affairs division in the ministry's pharmaceutical and food department.

Online vendors, including Hiroshi Mikitani, president of Rakuten Inc., operator of Japan's largest online shopping service, agree that sellers should explain side effects and other information necessary to ensure safety.

But they are not convinced this is impossible online, and they believe the ban violates the right of business as stipulated in the Constitution.

"It would be understandable if many cases of negative side effects or other problems are reported by selling drugs online. But the health ministry has not confirmed that selling medicine online is unsafe," said Genri Goto, chief executive officer of Kenko.com, Inc., a company that sells health-related products, including drugs, over the Internet.

"Let's assume that the face-to-face purchase is safe, but it can't be assumed that it's not safe if it's not face to face," he said.

When buying medicine online from Kenko.com, customers are required to fill out of a questionnaire about their health and are shown an explanation of the medicine they are about to buy. Before the purchase is finalized, they have to affirm with a mouse click that they have read the explanation.

Kenko.com and Wellnet. Co., another company selling medicine online, sued the government May 25. They claim online vendors have the right to continue selling medicine and requested that the ordinance be repealed.

Goto said that when the pharmaceutical law was revised in 2006 to strengthen the safe trade of drugs, nothing was included about online sales. The health ministry put that in the ordinance on its own.

He criticized the ministry for making such a sweeping change through a ministry ordinance and not through a vote in the Diet.

Under the revision, medicines are divided into three categories based on the risk of side effects.

Categories I and II are banned from online sales. Category I medications include stomach antacids and Minoxidil, a medicine to slow or stop hair loss, and category II drugs include aspirin and pregnancy tests. Category III covers such items as vitamins and mouthwashes.

According to Goto, about 70 percent of the drugs that have been sold online will be restricted starting Monday.

The restrictions will lead to a lot of lost money for some drug stores selling products online.

The Japan Online Drug Association, which Goto chairs, says that among its members, some individual drug stores depend on the Internet for 70 percent of their sales.

Many consumers are also not swayed by the ministry's argument that online purchases are unsafe.

Sasada of Higashiosaka said the online stores he uses explain the risks and effects in detail. Before actually clicking to purchase, those online stores direct customers to a page showing information about the drugs, he said.

On the other hand, Sasada said, he has never really received an explanation at a brick-and-mortar store.

"I think the Internet is safer in the current situation," he said.

Faced with the opposition from online drug sellers and buyers, the health ministry decided to adopt the two-year transition period during which previous customers and people who live on isolated islands without drug stores can continue buying drugs online.

Although the ministry is convinced that online drug transactions leave purchasers without a sufficient explanation of the medicine they are buying, it admits more work is needed to ensure the safety of face-to-face purchases as well.

"That is what we would like to thoroughly work on and was the point of the revision," said Takahashi of the health ministry.



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