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Supermarkets struggle with drug supply

July 21, 2011 - 19:23 By 배지숙
Wary of response from pharmacists, drug firms hesitant to distribute

The sale of over-the-counter drugs in stores without pharmacies, first permitted on Wednesday afternoon, got off to a rocky start.

“I wasn’t informed of any drugs to be stored today,” said a part-time worker of a Family Mart, the nation’s largest convenience store franchise, in Gangnam, southern Seoul, on Thursday morning.

The store headquarters recently adapted its computer network to allow the drugs to come in, but has not yet received information about their release.
Workers of Cosa Mart in Dogok-dong, southern Seoul, stack quasi-drugs Thursday morning, a day after the official anouncement of the deregulation by the health authorities. The supermarket is the only store that has managed to gain the drugs despite the disapproval of pharmacists and drug firms.  (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

It was a day after the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced that 48 over-the-counter items it had reclassified as “quasi drugs” including tonic, Bacchus; digestive drink, Whal Myung Su; antiseptic ointment, Antiphramine; Tylenol and others will be sold outside pharmacies. They can now be sold at supermarkets and 24-hour convenience stores across the nation. The stripping of exclusive sales rights from chemists was designed to grant the public an easier and wider access to the drugs.

Quasi-drugs mainly consisting of simple cough drops, digestion liquids, menthol pads and others, prove safe with a majority of people, the authorities said. The ministry on Tuesday summoned representatives of 18 pharmaceutical companies to ask for cooperation in distributing the drugs in establishments without pharmacies as well as existing drug stores.

However, on the first day of the implementation, most shelves of the retail stores were empty.

“I heard the drugs would be available but I haven’t considered contacting pharmaceutical companies yet. Maybe if our wholesaler brings them, I will consider,” a supermarket owner in Jongno, central Seoul, said. According to the ministry, only one supermarket in Seoul, Cosa Mart in Dogok-dong, sells those drugs as of Wednesday afternoon.

Drug makers have complained that there wasn’t enough time for them to spare additional stocks to supply to the stores. The government’s decision was finalized on July 4.

“From marketing to sticking extra labels on the packaging to notify consumers of quasi-drugs, there is confusion everywhere,” a drug maker reportedly told the authorities Tuesday.

However, some claim that in reality pharmaceutical firms avoid direct business deals with stores in fear of backlash from self-employed pharmacists, who say releasing drugs to sales outlets without pharmacies could immediately erode more than 10 percent of their revenue.

“The deregulation will take 40 percent of our income in the long run,” a young pharmacist who runs a drug store said.

“We expect the sales of the OTC or quasi-drugs at supermarkets to be insignificant,” a pharmaceutical company spokesman said. “It is natural that we become passive in expanding a sales route to include grocery stores,” he added. On Wednesday, Donga Pharmaceuticals, the maker of the nation’s best-selling energy drink, Bacchus, said it will not supply the drink to establishments without pharmacies for a while.

A group of mid- and small-sized supermarkets as well as convenience stores on Wednesday urged the government to persuade pharmaceutical firms and their wholesalers to secure distribution channels for them.

“We will also receive the items from our own wholesalers who have had business dealings with drug makers,” they said in a statement. If successful, the items will be sold at the stores from around July 28, they said.

“This is a tug-of-war,” a ministry official told The Korea Herald. “But each side has quite convincing reasons for their behavior. It is quite a tricky issue to mediate,” he added.

By Bae Ji-sook (