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HEALTH

Why are medicines in Germany only available in pharmacies?

Over the counter medicines like paracetamol are not usually available to buy in German drugstores or supermarkets. We spoke to an expert to find out why there are strict rules on the sale of some medical products - and why they seem pricier than other countries.

View of a shelf with medicines against coughs and colds in a pharmacy.
View of a shelf with medicines against coughs and colds in a pharmacy. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Friso Gentsch

If you’ve ever found yourself scanning the aisles of drugstores like DM or Rossmann wondering where to find the ibuprofen, paracetamol or cough mixture, you will be disappointed – they can generally only be bought in pharmacies in Germany. 

It can be a big culture shock to foreigners who are used to picking up some medicines while doing their weekly shop at the supermarket or while buying shampoo at the drugstore. 

So why are these over-the-counter medicines only sold in the Apotheke?

We got in touch with the Federal Association of German Pharmacist Associations (ABDA) to find out more.

Christian Splett, a spokesman for the association explained that – with very few exceptions – only pharmacies can sell over-the-counter (OTC) or non-prescription drugs in Germany. He said this is enshrined in German law, and is based on a couple of important principles.

Firstly, there is an emphasis on consumer protection.

“In Germany, we have a high standard of consumer protection which emphasises prevention rather than compensation,” said Splett. “We wouldn’t want someone to go and buy a pack of pain killers from a petrol station and then get seriously unwell.

“Healthcare is not like any other business. We have a serious responsibility for people’s health.”

Linked to this is the principle that taking medication is not something to be taken lightly.

A man taking a paracetamol tablet. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lino Mirgeler

“In Germany, it’s seen as really important that the use of medicinal drugs isn’t trivialised,” Splett said. “This is strengthened both by cultural attitudes and by the law.”

Since 2004, it has also been possible to buy medications from online pharmacies, from medicine providers such as DocMorris and Shop-Apotheke, which are sometimes cheaper than the high street pharmacies. 

These mail-order pharmacies are fully-fledged on-site pharmacies with a mail-order permit under the German Pharmacy Act.

Who decides on the prices of medicines?

On the question of why prices of medications such as cough medicine and standard pain killers seem to be higher in German pharmacies than in other European countries, the answer may lie in the fact that German pharmacies have complete freedom to set their own prices. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany will roll out e-prescriptions this year

“Despite strict regulations and moral obligations, pharmacists still have to act like other business owners, for instance, they set their prices for over-the-counter drugs with regard to the competition,” Splett explained.

According to the website of the Federal Association of German Pharmacist Associations e.V., the prices for individual drugs or for an entire product range can involve calculations based on various business and competitive factors.

For example, the purchasing conditions of a product may vary depending on the manufacturer, wholesaler, order quantity or season. Pharmacies also have to factor in the costs that they incur themselves, such as for personnel or other material costs.

The competitive situation, which is determined by the range and prices of neighbouring pharmacies, can also influence a pharmacy’s price calculation.

Meanwhile, there’s also the 19 percent value added tax (VAT), which also makes the price higher. 

Member comments

  1. What a load of German bollocks! The pharmacies are an oligopoly and have no real competition. This is just one of many areas of German protectionism that really irritates me, a couple of the others being the Notaires and the chimney guys!

  2. AND it keeps the many pharmacies in business which is the likely the main reason. I don’ remember reading too many aspirin overdose stories in the news while living in other countries.

  3. Out one hole:
    “In Germany, we have a high standard of consumer protection which emphasises prevention rather than compensation,” said Splett.
    Out the other end:
    On the question of why prices of medications such as cough medicine and standard pain killers seem to be higher in German pharmacies than in other European countries, the answer may lie in the fact that German pharmacies have complete freedom to set their own prices.

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: What’s the life expectancy in Germany?

Babies born in today's Germany can expect to live much longer than previous generations - with a slight decrease since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Reader question: What's the life expectancy in Germany?

The average life expectancy for women is 83.2 years, a decrease of 0.4 years since the year before the pandemic (2019). 

For men, the figure sits slightly slower at 78.2 years, or a decrease in 0.6 years, according to newly released figures from the Federal Statistical Office.

Yet there are strong regional differences. In the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, life expectancy is the highest nationwide – at 79.9 years for men and 84.2 years for women. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s population stagnates amid pandemic

In the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, men have the lowest life expectancy – around 77 years. In the small western state of Saarland, women have the shortest lifespans, or around 82 years.

There was a significant gap between life expectancy in eastern and western states at reunification. The gap has now closed for women, but east German men still have a life expectancy that is about one and a half years lower than men in the west.

Since the pandemic, the gap has increased further “because the eastern German states have been hit harder by the pandemic so far,” wrote the Federal Statistical Office.

How has life expectancy changed in Germany?

Data on life expectancy at birth has been available since the foundation of the German Empire in 1871. 

At that time, it was 35.6 years for men and 38.5 years for women. The low figures could be attributed to the high infant mortality rate. At that time, a quarter of newborns died in their first year of life.

How old people actually live is usually calculated from average age at death. 

Excluding those who died in the first year of life, the normal age at death sat at around 60 years for a long time. 

In 1956, it was 62 years for men and 66 for women. In 2020, it was 76 and 82 years respectively. 

People in Germany today are therefore living on average around 15 years older than previous generations.

What has influenced life expectancy in Germany? 

Since the 19th century, medical care, hygiene, nutrition and the housing situation for large swathes of the population have improved significantly.

“Working conditions and increased material prosperity can also be cited as significant reasons,” wrote the Federal Statistical Office.

After World War II, war-related health damage and a sharp increase in traffic accidents slowed the trend considerably, as did the Hong Kong flu between 1969 and 1970.

Yet since then, life expectancy has risen steadily in the Bundesrepublik. 

READ ALSO: From beer to babies, the 15 statistics you need to understand Germans

According to the Federal Statistical Office, four factors are important for the longer-living trend to continue: less tobacco and alcohol consumption, fewer suicides and fewer overweight children and young people.

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