Pharmacists say monopoly on OTC drugs needed to ensure public safety
Minister of Health and Welfare Chin Soo-hee is in hot water over the issue of selling over-the-counter drugs outside pharmacies.
While pharmacists claim exclusive management rights for any drugs for safety reasons, a majority of doctors and pharmaceutical companies, along with the presidential office are calling for the expansion of the sales have placed the minister in a tenuous situation.
According to the Joong Ang Daily newspaper, President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday morning scolded his secretaries for the health ministry’s decision to continue the ban on OTC drug sales at supermarkets and 24-hour convenience stores. Earlier this year, Lee told Chin that the sales regulation should be eased since he wanted easier and wider access to OTC drugs, which do not require doctor’s prescriptions.
Lee has reportedly referred directly to Chin, saying: “I cannot believe that a minister handled the situation like a freshman official.”
What made the matters worse was doctors’ “rebellion.” The Korean Medical Association, Korea’s largest interest group of physicians, on Tuesday morning publicly demanded Chin’s resignation, claiming that her lack of confidence has caused chaos in the medical field.
“It is ridiculous that the minister gives in to pharmacists even if the public wants it badly,” KMA President Kyung Man-ho said. The doctors, who have supported wider OTC drug sales, urged Chin to step down.
The Korean Pharmaceutical Association, on the other hand, said that even OTC drugs, mainly light cough drops, painkillers and digestion pills, need directions and monitoring from pharmacists.
“There is no such thing as a ‘safe’ medicine,” association spokesman Yoon Sam-young said. “People need to be consulted all the time about what they are taking.”
Underneath the explanation lies the fact that the deprivation of the exclusive sales rights may pose a huge blow to 20,000 pharmacists nationwide. According to industry insiders, sales of OTC drugs take up more than 10 percent of revenue.
Still, according to a recent survey by the Korea Consumer Agency of 500 adults nationwide, 71.1 percent supported the wider sales, saying they have had a hard time looking for medicines in the middle of the night or holidays when no chemists are working.
To ease public antipathy, the association is operating 59 pharmacies nationwide at nighttime and holidays. However, the number is a far cry from actual demand. Also, it is reported that these pharmacies are marking losses of around 6 million won ($5,500) per month due to high labor costs. Some pharmacies have refused to enact the extended working hours.
The embattled Health Ministry said there isn’t much the government can do other than persuade the pharmacists to give in.
In a meeting with reporters last month, Chin vented against the current legal system which prevents her from intervening. “Under the law, pharmacists have the exclusive right to manage pharmaceutical products, including OTC items. This means that should the government allow the OTC drugs sales at supermarkets, the store owners will still have to refer the sales to chemists,” she said.
“Unless we revise the law, which seems even tougher, there isn’t a real way supermarkets, convenience stores or any others could sell cough drops freely.”
An official said the ministry has made unsuccessful attempts to bring pharmacists to the negotiation table. “It is a long and hard battle,” he sighed.
By Bae Ji-sook (firstname.lastname@example.org