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Health For Members

Why are medicines only available in pharmacies in Austria?

Hayley Maguire
Hayley Maguire - [email protected]
Why are medicines only available in pharmacies in Austria?
Medicines are highly regulated in Austria and even over-the-counter painkillers can only be bought at a pharmacy. (Photo by Castorly Stock / Pexels)

Basic medicines like painkillers and allergy tablets can only be bought at pharmacies in Austria – and they are expensive. Here’s why.

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For some international residents in Austria, a noticeable difference in healthcare is the limited availability of basic medicines.

This is because products like ibuprofen, paracetamol, aspirin and anti-histamines are only sold in pharmacies. Whereas in countries like the UK, they are available in supermarkets and at stores like Boots and Superdrug (similar to Austria’s DM and Bipa). 

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The same applies to the US and Australia, where medicines are more widely available and usually much cheaper.

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So why is it different in Austria? We took a closer look to find out.

The rules for selling medicine in Austria

Pharmaceuticals in Austria are highly regulated and can only be sold by licensed pharmacies. Outside of pharmacies, certain vitamin products and teas can be sold in drugstores, but even then some herbal teas are stored behind a locked cabinet.

As a result, prices for over-the-counter painkillers and allergy medication in Austrian pharmacies are high compared to countries where the sale is not restricted.

Furthermore, the sale of prescription medicines on the internet is prohibited in Austria, and pharmacies are not allowed to ship medicines within Austria or overseas.

READ ALSO: How much do you need to earn for a good life in Austria?

A recent study on the benefits of changing the rules on the sale of non-prescription medicines in Austria said it would “encourage self-care, and could reduce pressure on healthcare resources”.

However, the study also identified several barriers, such as a conservative attitude, minimal political support and few company applications to challenge the law. Additionally, the authors identified Austria as one of the most restrictive nations when it comes to medicines requiring a prescription.

Could the rules change?

For several years, health and beauty retailer DM has been calling for the right to sell over-the-counter painkillers in Austria and took the case to court last year for the third time.

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However, in March 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that the absolute ban on the self-service dispensing of medicine in Austria will stay in place – a decision that was welcomed by the Chamber of Pharmacists.

One reason for upholding the ban was to protect the supply of medicinal products. Additionally, the court stated that pharmacies are subject to many public and professional obligations to ensure public health.

READ MORE: ‘Kur’: The alternative treatments you can get from a doctor in Austria

For now, it seems unlikely that the rules will be relaxed in Austria, although DM has promised to continue challenging the law. 

Speaking after the verdict, Harald Bauer, Managing Director at DM, said: "We will continue to campaign for legal regulations that focus on the interests of consumers in a contemporary form and that do justice to the responsibility of citizens." 

Meanwhile, Ulrike Mursch-Edlmayr, President of the Austrian Chamber of Pharmacists, said: “Pharmaceuticals are not consumer goods. Well-founded and trustworthy advice on the right choice and application plays a major role, especially with drugs that the consumer takes without a diagnosis and prescription from a doctor.”

Useful vocabulary

Pharmacy - Apotheke

Medicine - Medizin or Arzneimittel

Prescription - Rezept

Painkiller - Schmerztablette

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