Valium and other meds for sale illegally as online pharmacies boom in China

More and more Chinese people are getting their prescription medicine from online pharmacies, but the young industry has plenty of growing pains.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Narcotic and psychotropic drugs like Valium and phenobarbital are easily available on major Chinese online pharmacies, according to a new report from The Paper (in Chinese).

Reporters found 117 scheduled medications, including treatments for blood clotting and depression, for sale without prescription by leading industry websites. The article mentions Nasdaq-listed 111, as well as Alibaba Health Pharmacy, JD Pharmacy, and Tencent’s WeDoctor — which are owned by the three internet giants, but does not say which drugs were found on which platforms.

It is illegal to sell these drugs, but the legal online pharmacy business is also booming. China has the second-largest pharmaceutical market in the world, after the U.S., and about 60.3% Chinese residents used online pharmacies in 2020, according to a recent survey by iResearch (in Chinese). In comparison, 35% of Americans used online pharmacies, according to a 2020 poll by an industry research group.

  • In 2018, China’s pharmaceutical ecommerce market was worth 97.8 billion yuan ($15 billion), according to a report from one research company.
  • Deloitte research reported that about 150 billion yuan ($23.1 billion) in hospital and retail drug sales are expected to move online.

Problems in offline pharmacies, such as higher prices and shortages of certain drugs, are pushing patients online, according to the iResearch survey. For example, people with chronic diseases and rare diseases sought medication online more often.

  • This is a recent phenomenon. The first Chinese online pharmacy, Shanghai No. 1 Pharmacy (上海第一医药), was started in 1998 but was shut down within a year (in Chinese), and online sales of prescription drugs were prohibited.
  • But starting from 2019 (in Chinese), the government relaxed the ban, and in 2020 issued a policy (in Chinese) to promote online drug sales as a way of relieving industry bottlenecks.

China’s major online pharmacies are:

Other large players include: (丁香医生), Jianke (健客网上药店), Yaofangwang (药房网商城), (叮当快药), Ehaoyao (好药师), Chunyu Yisheng (春雨医生), (健一网), (国药网), and (康爱多).

See also: Chinese pharma’s history of counterfeits, fakes, and quality issues on SupChina.