PARAPHARMACIES are springing up all over France – there are around 300 of them so far. But do not be fooled – the law on selling medicines has not been relaxed.
A parapharmacie cannot sell you as much as a junior aspirin. For that you still have to go to a proper dispensing chemist.
What they do sell, however, and often at discount prices, is a huge variety of other products – personal hygiene, make-up, cosmetics, diet foods, hair care, baby products, beauty treatments, homeopathic remedies, vitamins and products to help you give up smoking.
They also sell the non-pharmaceutical elements of a first aid kit: plasters, tweezers, cotton wool and mild disinfectant sprays.
They are unlikely to be allowed to sell medicines (even non-prescription ones) any time soon because the pharmacies via their unions are a powerful lobbying group and they claim that if parapharmacies are allowed to sell non-prescription drugs, and thus compete more fiercely with pharmacies, there is a risk of some pharmacies being forced out of business.
They also say that no one should buy even a basic painkiller without access to qualified medical advice.
Many people agree, saying that pharmaceuticals should not be a commodity sold merely for profit, but should be sold only on grounds of medical need by a medical professional.
Staff in parapharmacies are not required to have any special training, but pharmacists in France are highly trained and can give advice on simple medical queries as well as dispense prescription drugs.
However, in the light of the belief that medicines should not be sold for profit, it is ironic that prices of non-prescription medicines vary widely across France, some shops charging twice as much as others for the same products.
Michel-Edouard Leclerc, the chief executive of the supermarket chain, has been running a campaign for the liberalisation of the sale of libre-accès (non-prescription) medicines, including TV and press advertising, polls and research about the effects this has had in countries such as Italy and the UK that have already adopted this system.
The move is opposed by big chains such as Univers Pharmacy. Meanwhile, the internet is awash with offers of cheap medicines. The Health Ministry has warned of the public health risks posed and is considering regulating online medicine sales.
At the moment there are no checks on drugs bought over the internet to ensure that they are not counterfeit, that they do contain an active ingredient and that the dosing information is correct.
Buying licensed medicines from the internet is legal as long as they are legally permitted drugs, supplied to people with a valid prescription, and many people see nothing wrong with buying non-prescription medicines from websites at prices which are often far below those offered in the local pharmacy.
The savings on costly prescription drugs such as Zyban (which is sometimes prescribed to help people stop smoking but is not reimbursed by the Assurance Maladie) can also be substantial.
Another opportunity for bargain-hunters are urban street markets.
Many of them have stalls offering three for the price of two deals on very good quality shampoo and other personal hygiene items.