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Ministry on the rack over OTC drug market opening

June 16, 2011 - 19:05 By 배지숙
Just 44 items to be taken from pharmacy control

The Ministry of Health and Welfare’s attempt to permit sales of over-the-counter drugs, including cough drops, pain killers and digestion pills, was crushed Wednesday as representatives of pharmacists, doctors, consumers and the administration failed to reach an agreement.

Instead, the group agreed to allow a total of 44 items including the energy drink Bacchus D, the herbal digestive drink Whal Myung su, menthol pads and antiseptic ointments to be sold outside pharmacies in supermarkets and 24-hour convenience stores from August.

The respective items were reclassified as “non-drugs,” exclusive of the Pharmaceutical Law, which puts all medicines under the control of pharmacists.

“It is a big step forward for the country to streamline the pharmaceutical order,” Lee Dong-wook, a ministry official, said.

The limited agreement was made several days after President Lee Myung-bak, who had openly and repeatedly expressed his zeal to open up the OTC drug market, railed against the sluggish progress of negotiations.

Though Health and Welfare Minister Chin Soo-hee explained that under the current law store owners would still have to refer their sales to chemists even if the government lifts the regulation, Lee ordered Chin to make swift and meaningful progress. The ministry held marathon negotiations with the pharmacists to bring them to the Wednesday meeting, insiders said.

The sale of OTC drugs at ordinary stores has become common in other parts of the world including the U.S., U.K., Sweden and Canada. In Japan, the government took 12 years to release 95 percent of OTC drugs to the ordinary market.

In Korea, consumer activists claim that sales of drugs that have already proven their effectiveness and safety at more than 100,000 stores nationwide will strengthen consumer rights and public health eventually.

But highly desired cough drops, painkillers and fever remedies were excluded from the new plan.

Pharmacists insisted on keeping control of the market citing public health. Since many of pain killers and flu remedies contain potentially dangerous substances, they need close monitoring by specialists even though they do not require prescriptions, they say.

Underneath all is the 1.9 trillion won ($1.7 billion) OTC drug market as of 2010, which is equivalent to 10 percent of the revenues of 21,000 pharmacies nationwide.

“The pharmacists will never give up on it,” Kim Tae-hyun, official of the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, said. He asked the government to expand the deregulation.

The government would have to compensate pharmacists if they lose exclusive sales rights of OTC drugs, pundits say.

“One way is to recategorize professional medicines in need of prescriptions to OTC drugs so that pharmacists could sell some simple stomachache remedies and others without the interference of doctors,” an observer said. “Unless the pharmacists are guaranteed with their current or better income, they will not move.”

The health ministry is reportedly planning to submit a revision of the Pharmaceutical Law to the National Assembly this autumn.

By Bae Ji-sook (