Government defiant over EU Apoteket ruling

There were widely differing interpretations yesterday of the European Court of Justice's ruling against the state owned pharmacy retailer, Apoteket.

The government’s minister for healthcare and care of the elderly, Ylva Johansson, claimed that only a few amendments were required to Apoteket’s systems to comply with the decision. In effect, the monopoly would remain intact. The ruling only affects over the counter medicines.

Meanwhile, academics and lobbyists queued up to say the ruling spelled the end for Apoteket’s monopoly.

The court had said: “The system of selecting medicinal preparations operated by the monopoly in question, Apoteket, is liable to place at a disadvantage medicinal preparations from other member states.”

Sweden doesn’t import any over the counter medicines and overseas manufacturers currently have no right to know why they can’t sell to Sweden or to appeal decisions.

The case came about after the government attempted to prosecute a company called Bringwell International AB for selling nicotine patches and nicotine chewing gum.

“Swedish law applies,” pronounced a bullish Johansson at a press conference. “However, in the future we must ensure that we don’t discriminate against any suppliers, but that won’t be hard to do.”

Her interpretation was that a number of Apoteket’s contracts would need to be revised and that there would need to be more transparency in their processes. But she didn’t envisage a free for all in the country’s shopping malls.

“The monopoly remains. We’ll carry on improving access to these types of medicine. But we won’t do that by having some kind of wild west with medicines being sold in petrol stations and grocery stores.”

The government must now review the over the counter market in Sweden and decide whether new legislation is required to comply with the ruling. The risk is that in the meantime another retailer will challenge the monopoly.

“It’s hard to say who will test the Swedish law. But it isn’t something that gives me sleepless nights,” said Johansson.

DN interpreted Johansson’s aggressive performance as a strategy to scare off opportunists.

The Swedish trade organisation, Svensk Handel, who supported Bringwell International in its case against Apoteket, said the monopoly had collapsed. But they didn’t foresee a sudden rush.

“Now we must sit down and go through the judgement with lawyers and government agencies before we start selling,” said chief executive, Dag Klackenberg, in a press release.

Nils Wahl, professor in European integration law at Stockholm University, considered that the European Court’s decision meant that it’s no longer illegal for other companies to sell over the counter medicines.

“The judgement says that the current system doesn’t exclude discrimination and is therefore illegal. The judgement seems to assume that the government can implement a system which excludes discrimination. But to conclude from that that a monopoly in over the counter medicines is allowed goes too far,” he said.

Some commentators believe that Apoteket Shop, Apotekets new chain of centrally located stores selling only over the counter medicines, was a premeditated move which anticipated yesterday’s decision.

ICA, the Swedish supermarket giant, are poised to enter the new market. They responded to the launch of Apoteket Shop by introducing enlarged health and beauty sections in their ICA Maxi stores. In a press release yesterday, the store said:

“We are ready to sell over the counter medicines.”

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet