The Supreme Court has declared parts of the Medicines Act unconstitutional, saying they placed too many restrictions on new pharmacies.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Priit Pikamäe said that the restrictions curbed freedom of business and hurt consumer interests by making it unlikely that pharmacies would be established in areas with high demand.
In particular, the decision scraps demographic and geographical requirements for opening new pharmacies.
Pikamäe said that the case was an example of how the state had to make sure there was a suitable environment for the free market to function. "The state must also protect consumers by ensuring freedom of competition so that consumers could get the best service or goods at a reasonable price."
He warned that the overturned restrictions do not mean that the pharmacy business should be regulated laxly. The court provided for a transition period of June 9 for the changes.
The decision stemmed from a petition filed by Chancellor of Justice Indrek Teder in January. Among other things, Teder said that the current restrictions entrench market control by large pharmacy chains.
Regional Minister Siim Kiisler welcomed the Supreme Court decision, saying it is a boost for better availability of medicines in the countryside. Recent years have seen many closures of small-town pharmacies, and the only 24h location in much of the south, for example, is in Tartu city center.
However, many pharmacists oppose today's approved changes, saying that in fact prices will rise and that the loosened restrictions will lead to a spate of weak businesses.
The two main lobby groups for pharmacists and pharmacies, respectively, called the decision "patient-unfriendly" in statements released today, saying it would create confusion and a profusion of less reliable "quick pharmacies" as well as drug safety problems.