TOKYO (AP) -- A month after the speedy government approval of the impotence drug Viagra drew widespread protest, Japan has moved closer to ending a ban on a contraceptive pill for women.
The government committee studying the safety of the pill has finished its nine-year deliberation. It concluded there was no reason to further withhold approval, although it stopped short of deciding to actually approve it, Health Ministry official Yasuhide Furusawa said today.
Although the pill has been available to most women in the rest of the world for nearly four decades, Tokyo has dragged its feet, citing fears about the destruction of the nation's morals and even environmental harm from the hormones.
The pill suddenly came into the spotlight after Viagra was approved in late January in just six months. Women's groups accused the government of sexism.
The committee, expected to meet again in June, said Wednesday that it first wants to write up guidelines for doctors and users, such as teaching people to use condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, Furusawa said.
"Why we need to wait three months is a mystery," said Dr. Kunio Kitamura, director of the clinic at the Tokyo-based Japan Family Planning Association, an affiliate of Planned Parenthood. "If there's any drug that should be approved, no questions asked, it's the pill."
In contrast to the pill, Viagra was approved so quickly the guidelines are still being worked out.
The Health Ministry said today that warnings were sent this week to local governments asking that emergency rooms not use nitroglycerin, the No. 1 treatment for heart attacks, for patients who are also on Viagra. Mixing Viagra with nitroglycerin can be deadly.
"We are concerned about confusion at emergency rooms," said ministry official Hiroyuki Doi.
If the committee recommends approval in June, government approval is likely within a month, and the pill will start to be available in the fall.
Many welcomed the news that the pill's approval may be imminent.
Teikoku Hormone Mfg., a company that hopes to put the pill on the market, said preparations were under way, with the assumption that approval was coming soon.
Pill advocates, however, said they weren't about to let their guard down after repeated disappointments.
The Professional Women's Coalition for Sexuality and Health, a Tokyo grassroots group that has been pushing for the pill's approval, urged the government to stop stalling and to make sure that women get correct information about its use.
"In Japan, doctors and nurses have almost no knowledge about modern contraception methods," it said in a statement.
The most commonly used contraceptive in Japan is the condom. Abortion is also common, with one in five pregnancies ending in abortion.