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Lawmakers oppose OTC drug sales

The Cabinet’s approval of over-the-counter drug sales outside pharmacies is facing opposition from lawmakers, with the prospect of the relevant bill passing the National Assembly appearing dim.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare is seeking to push the pharmaceutical law revision through the parliament by the end of the year. The move comes at the direction of President Lee Myung-bak who wants to see commonly used drugs available outside of pharmacies.

But even ruling party lawmakers express concern that drug abuse could increase if certain drugs are made more widely available, as pharmacies and drug store owners insist.

The revision bill, which passed the Cabinet Tuesday and will be submitted to the National Assembly, calls for the creation of a new “out-of-pharmacy drugs” category.

Until August, pain killers, cough drops, digestion pills and other remedies required a prescription for purchase. But the ministry has promulgated a ministerial decree to allow supermarkets and 24-hour-convenience stores to sell 48 OTC drugs as “quasi drugs.”

The decree met fierce opposition from pharmacies as well as civic activists who are concerned about drug abuse and side effects. A group of 66 pharmacies last month filed a suit with the Seoul Administrative Court to scrap the revision.

On Tuesday, at the National Assembly’s audit into state affairs, lawmakers lashed Health and Welfare Minister Rim Che-min.

According to the Korea Food and Drug Administration, a total of 3,958 cases of adverse effects from so-called quasi drugs were reported between 2006 and 2011.

“If one buys a drug from a chemist and suffers side effects, liability lies with the pharmacist because he or she is responsible for the dosage. However, if one buys a drug at a supermarket without seeing a pharmacist and then has an adverse effect, the consumer will have to be held fully responsible. The supermarket owner is not responsible for any outcome of the intake,” said Rep. Joo Seung-yong of the main opposition Democratic Party. He added that the ministry had pushed the law revision in haste on the basis of poor research.

Rep. Choi Young-hee said that once the revision passes the parliament, the quasi drugs will not be covered by the national health insurance scheme.

“Many of the 48 items are bestselling drugs. The revision will pave the way for sales outlets to rake in a lot of money,” she said.

It’s not only opposition parties that oppose the revision.

Rep. Hong Joon-pyo, chairman of the ruling Grand National Party, also said the revision would not easily pass the National Assembly.

“Acetaminophen in Tyrenol is a toxin. It is inappropriate to be sold outside of chemists’ monitoring. Psuedoephedrine in cough drops is classified as methamphetamine, and romilar used to dissolve phlegm is reported to cause hallucinations at times,” he said.

Minister Rim, however, stood firm on the issue.

“Now is time for consumers to possess and exercise their own rights and knowledge for what they are taking. All drugs have side effects, which are written clearly on the packaging. I don’t believe their sales location could change the facts,” he said.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)
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