French Health Minister opposed to selling over-the-counter drugs in supermarkets

France’s Minister of Health Agnes Buzyn said on Friday that she was opposed to the idea of allowing over-the-counter drugs such as paracetamol and ibuprofen to be sold in supermarkets.

French Health Minister opposed to selling over-the-counter drugs in supermarkets
The sale of over-the-counter medication is strictly controlled in France. Photo: AFP

On Thursday, the Competition Authority recommended extending the sale of non-prescription drugs such as common painkillers, hay fever remedies and cold and flu medication to parapharmacies  and mass distribution centres such as supermarkets. 

The Authority stressed that such a development should take place in dedicated spaces within supermarkets, with the “mandatory and continuous presence of a responsible pharmacist”, according to the Authority.

READ ALSO: Why all 17 pharmacies in this French town must close on Mondays

Health Minister Agnes Buzyn leaving the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysees Palace on March 27th 2019. Photo: AFP

But Buzyn said she considered that such a reform could weaken the network of pharmacies in rural areas.

“I am not in favour of it,” the minister said in a radio interview on Europe 1. “When we talk about this, it implies weakening small pharmacies in rural areas, which are often the first resort for sick people, I think that would be a very bad idea and a very bad signal to give. We must support small local community industries.”

The minister, a doctor by profession, added that “considering that drugs can be bought like any other food consumption product, I find that problematic. There are always side effects when you take medication, it always requires advice and pharmacists are there to give advice, to guide people.”For the National Order of Pharmacists, such a reform would amount to “breaking a model that guarantees patient health safety”. 

According to its president Carine Wolf-Thal speaking to Le Monde, the current system allows the population to “have access to safe and quality medicines and medical biology knowledge. Let us be careful not to jeopardize an organisation that has always known how to adapt and meet the expectations of the population!

“It guarantees the connection and expertise that the French need more than ever to respond to the difficulties of accessing healthcare services,” she says.

The Competition Authority also recommended making it more flexible for pharmacies to sell over-the-counter medicines online.

“We are examining this, because there is a demand, a need. We have a working group that meets with pharmacists,” responded Buzyn on Europe 1.

“But again, for me, the issue is safety,” she added. “We cannot buy everything on the internet, we must absolutely secure these purchases[…], pharmacists, especially local pharmacists, must be able to benefit from online sales and it must not be turn out to be to the detriment of this vital network and the work that pharmacists do on a daily basis for public health.”

The sale of over the counter medication in France is strictly controlled.

Pharmacies are the only places you can buy even simple products such as paracetamol or ibuprofen and you require a prescription for any codeine products, for example.

Member comments

  1. Is she living in the nineteenth century? Also perhaps the price of paracetamol and ibuprofen would come down in price. The small town near me has three chemists and none of them opens at lunch time or on a Sunday. These draconian petty restrictions aren’t helping anyone. Shops/chemists close, it’s a natural phonomium in business and no amount of petty restrictions will change that.

  2. Boggy,nearly every country in Europe is like this, France is not different. I support this decision because it is not something you should buy at a store, it must be regulated by the government in facilites that comply with government laws. Having them in stores is not necessary since there are plenty throughout France. Also, most stores in France close Sunday.

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EXPLAINED: Why does France have so many pharmacies?

One of the first things newcomers notice about France is the preponderance of pharmacies - instantly recognisable by their illuminated green cross signs - in every town, city and even some villages.

EXPLAINED: Why does France have so many pharmacies?
Over-the-counter medicines in pharmacies. Photo: Guillaume Sauvant/AFP

They are one of the things that make the French high street distinctive – the regular illuminated green cross of the pharmacy which helpfully also displays the time, date and temperature, but how does the economy sustain so many of these businesses?

How many?

Although pharmacies are lot more prevalent in France than many other countries, the French are not the European leaders in this field.

The most recent data on pharmacies shows around 21,000 in mainland France.

But an EU comparison from 2017 shows that France had 33 pharmacies per 100,000 people, a respectable number but not far ahead of the EU average of 29 and miles behind front-runner Greece, which has an astonishing 88 pharmacies for every 100,000 people.

Graphic: OECD

In fact France has fewer pharmacies per head of the population than Greece, Spain, Belgium, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Ireland and Poland. It is however well above the UK (which at the time of the data was still part of the EU) on 21 on Denmark which has just 7 pharmacies for every 100,000 people, which could make for quite long queues.

The places in France with the highest density of pharmacies are Paris and the départements of central France – although that probably relates more to central France’s low population density than an abundance of pharmacies. One third of pharmacies are in places with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants.

Overall the number of pharmacies in France is falling, from 22,514 in 2007 to 21,192 in 2017.

But is there enough business for them all?


One of the main reasons for the popularity of the pharmacy is that they are the only place you can buy certain things, thanks to restrictive French rules on over-the-counter medicines.

While in many countries you can buy headache tablets or paracetamol in a number of places including supermarkets, corner shops and service stations, in France drugs like Ibuprofen can only be bought at a pharmacy.

This is also true for things like cough medicine and cold remedies, so if you have a minor illness you need to head to the pharmacy.

There are also restrictions on ownership which mean that pharmacy chains are not allowed, although parapharmacies – which only offer non-prescription medicines – are often part of a chain.


As well as selling over-the-counter products, pharmacists also dispense medication prescribed by doctors and here French doctors and their patients keep them busy – a study in 2019 showed that 90 percent of doctors’ appointments result in a prescription and the average prescription is for three or more items.

READ ALSO Why are the French so keen on taking medicine?

The French are among the most medicated populations in Europe and a generous healthcare system means that most prescriptions are reimbursed, so patients are unlikely to hesitate before filling a prescription that their doctors give them.

Pharmacies in France usually also sell a wide variety of homeopathic remedies which are extremely popular, although from 2020 the government has stopped funding these.

Pharmacies have been a key part of Covid testing in France. Photo Guillaume Guay/AFP

Medical access

Another reason that French people love their pharmacies is that they are really useful. Every pharmacy or parapharmacy has at least one trained pharmacist on the premises who as well as dispensing medicines can give medical advice on a range of ailments.

They are particularly useful in the growing number of ‘medical deserts’ where there are not enough doctors for the local population and also open in the evenings and at weekends. Pharmacies in small towns or city neighbourhoods often have a rota so that at least one is open on a Sunday.

They also offer a number of extremely useful services such as dispensing the winter flu vaccine and – from March 15th – the Covid vaccine, while if you have been mushroom picking, you can take your haul to the local pharmacy to check that you haven’t picked anything poisonous.