Several pharmacies in Ventimiglia, the closest accessible Italian town to the southern French border, are reporting an increase in the number of French customers visiting with prescriptions as France faces shortages of hundreds of common drugs.
The shortages affect many common medicines such as antidiabetics, corticoids, paracetamol or the antibiotic amoxicillin as well as the well-used Doliprane and Efferalgan.
The shortages have been aggravated by a surge in cases of flu and other seasonal illnesses but were initially caused by supply chain issues related to the Covid pandemic. France imports 80% of its drug molecules from China and India, countries where production was significantly affected by the crisis.
Health Minister François Braun has said the shortage could last for another two months, prompting some French customers to travel to Italy with their prescriptions as pharmacies there remain well-stocked.
“We have supplied about a dozen prescriptions from France since the New Year, mainly for Doliprane orders,” said Francesca Arnelli, a pharmacist at Farmacia Morel in Ventimiglia.
Doliprane is known under ‘Tachipirina’ in Italy, the Italian word for ‘paracetamol’ or ‘Tylenol.’
Another nearby pharmacy, which French people have also been visiting, has anticipated the shortage by stocking up on boxes of ‘Tachipirina’ and ‘Augmentin’ – the Italian version of amoxicillin.
Medication more expensive in Italy
While Ventimiglia is appreciated by southern French people living in Menton or Nice (Alpes-Maritimes) for cheaper goods and fuel, Italian medicines are more expensive than their French counterparts.
But French social security reimburses their cost if they are prescribed by French doctors, no matter where the drugs are bought.
“This practice remains marginal. I do not see many French people buying drugs in foreign countries,” said Emmanuel Hess, owner of the Pharmacie Internationale in Nice and member of the Fédération des syndicats de pharmaciens en France for the Alpes-Maritimes department.
Difficulties finding stock in France
Dr Hess said he avoided supply issues on some of the most common drugs by stocking up early, referring to a “strain” on stocks rather than a shortage. Still, some products remain harder to find than others.
“I am fighting every day to find medicine. I have been fighting with my wholesaler to be supplied with cough syrup,” he said.
Some 90 drugs have been declared out of stock with more than 120 more registered as being under strain nationwide, according to a chart updated by the Agence nationale de sécurité du médicament et des produits de santé, the agency assessing the benefits and risks associated with the use of different drugs.
While Dr Hess agreed that strain on supply and distribution processes was one of the reasons behind the lack of medications, he said the main reason is because France buys its medicine for less than most other European countries leaving pharmaceutical companies favouring countries that pay more, such as Germany.
While this has meant that medicine costs have increased for patients, it has helped such countries avoid shortages, according to Dr Hess.
France has allowed some subcontractors to prepare their own cough syrup, but its price will be six to eight times higher as a consequence. This is where the real problem lies, according to Dr Hess.
“Cough syrup is going to be more expensive since distribution got clogged specifically because France bought medicine at a cheaper price,” he said. “This is a case of a snake biting its own tail,” he added.