The emergency contraceptive drug known as Plan B will likely be coming out from behind the pharmacy counter, a move the Canadian Association of Pharmacists is not happy about.

The National Association of Pharmacy Regulatory Authorities accepted a recommendation this week to change the way the drug is sold, allowing it to be freely available on drugstore shelves instead of behind the pharmacy counter.

Currently, women who want to buy the drug have to ask pharmacy staff, a condition critics have contended may discourage some women from using it to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

The proposed change would see the contraceptive, sold under the brand name Plan B, stocked on shelves near the dispensary, so purchasers could easily ask for advice on its use if they need it.

The national body advises provincial and territorial pharmacy regulatory authorities, each of which will have final say over the matter in their own jurisdiction.

The Canadian Association of Pharmacists (CPhA) does not support the proposed changes.

"Health Canada’s decision in 2005 to take emergency contraception off prescription status [but keep it behind the counter] was based on the need to have a trained health professional provide advice on the appropriate use of ECP," said Janet Cooper, CPhA’s Senior Director of Professional Affairs, in a news release Friday.

"What will be lost is the opportunity for a pharmacist to use consultation on emergency contraception as a bridge to a referral to other health care providers, when needed, as well as providing important education regarding contraception and reproductive health."

She says many women don't actually need to take the pill, which can be used within three days of unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy. And once the pill is easily accessible on pharmacy shelves, they'll be losing out on key information about the product, its correct usage and contraception information that pharmacists currently provide.

She says previous studies have shown that many women have misconceptions about Plan B, which is made up of a synthetic hormone called levonorgestrel that is used in varying doses in other contraceptives, and are confused about birth control generally.

In taking the decision, Canada, where the drug is sold by Montreal-based Paladin Labs Inc. Research, becomes the fifth country to agree to allow Plan B to be sold as an over-the-counter product. Other countries where the drug is sold this way are Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and India.

"CPhA is also disappointed by the lack of an open and transparent consultation with health professionals on this issue," said  Cooper. "We believe that such decisions should be both evidence-based and socially responsible."

It could be some time before the result of the decision is seen on drugstore shelves, even if provinces and territories accept the recommended change. Where some can almost automatically accept a decision of the national body and incorporate it into their own provincial drug schedules, others may have to go through more regulatory steps to make the change.   

With files from the Canadian Press