One of the features of German life that expats notice right away is how expensive and difficult-to-get-at drugs are. You can get find 100 tablets of aspirin for 99 cents on the shelf of any normal American drugstore. In England, they’re a bit more expensive, but still freely available.
In Germany, though you must go an Apotheke — a licensed pharmacist — to get these over-the-counter medications. There, you will be required to ask for the aspirin, which is kept behind the counter. It’s incredibly expensive. Even the online version in Germany costs more than ten times what it does in the U.S.: 9.38 Euro (G) (about $12.50) for 100 tablets. It apparently has to be imported and re-imported in order to make Internet sale legal.
Yes, we’re talking about good old fashioned aspirin here, not some sort of nitroglycerin-laced Super-Aspirin. This price difference might strike you as trivial, unless you’re one of the millions of people who are told by their doctors to take aspirin every day. And the same is true of cold medicines, laxatives, and other routine medical products that have some medicinal effect, but that you do not need a prescription (Rezept) for.
This seems to be another example of rent-seeking in the German economy. Nobody doubts that pharmacists (or chemists, if you prefer the British term) should be involved in the distribution of dangerous medications. But once upon a time, German pharmacists were able to convince the legislator that they needed to be in control of distribution of innocuous, everyday stuff like aspirin and cold medicine. They likely dragged out the German show-stopper argument: Sicherheit (safety). How can somebody without a college degree be trusted to dose themselves with something as terrifyingly dangerous as aspirin?* Now they can force anyone who wants to buy aspirin to visit their shops and pay their prices. You can bet they’re not going to give that up without a fight.
But alas, as with so much rent-seeking behavior, it’s getting a run for its money now. A chain of drugstores in Germany (that is, places in which you can buy soap, fingernail clippers, dishwasher detergent, herbal remedies, vitamins, and pet food — but not drugs) has decided to wade in to the prescription-drug business. You can go into one of these places, put your prescription in a bag, and it would be filled by a pharmacy in the Netherlands (which operate under fewer restrictions) and shipped back to Germany. You come back a few days later and pick it up while you do your other shopping. Yes, you heard me right — they ship your prescription to Holland to get it filled.
Of course, this triggered a counter-offensive from various interest groups and government agencies. The Landgericht Düsseldorf (G) has just basically punted on the issue, saying it doesn’t have jurisdiction. Nobody knows who will win the legal dispute in the long run. But in the meantime, you’ll still have to visit your friendly neighborhood Apotheke for your aspirin.
* Keep this in mind next time you hear someone sneer: "Americans have no sense of personal responsibility — why, they allow people to sue companies when they injured themselves in the most idiotic ways!"