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[Editorial] Household medicines

Controversy is raging over the government’s plan to make general household medicines available at supermarkets and convenience stores.

The Health and Welfare Ministry recently announced a list of 44 over-the-counter pharmaceutical products that would be sold at retail outlets starting August. If the plan goes as scheduled, it will be the first time in Korea that OTC products are sold at places other than licensed drug stores.

The list included 12 energy drinks, four ointments, 15 liquid indigestion drinks and 11 intestinal pills, but no cold medicines or fever reducers.

Health Minister Chin Soo-hee said cold medicines and fever reducers needed to be reclassified to become suitable for sales at non-pharmacy outlets. She said she would push for revision of the Pharmacist Act to include them in what would be termed “freely sellable OTC products.”

The ministry’s announcement came after President Lee Myung-bak scolded officials for failing to follow up on his instruction to address people’s long-standing complaints that they cannot purchase household medicines, including cold medicines and fever reducers, at night, on weekends or on holidays when their neighborhood drug stores are closed.

The ministry’s plan, however, was rejected by pharmacists, who claimed that the list included some items that could be dangerous when taken without the instructions of a pharmacist. The real reason for their objection, however, was that the anticipated sales of the OTC products at retail outlets would dent their incomes.

To offset the expected cut in pharmacists’ incomes, the Korea Pharmaceutical Association demanded that a total of 479 prescription drugs be reclassified as OTC medicines. The demand was put forward under the pretext that doing so would enhance consumer convenience.

Here pharmacists employ a dual standard ― they oppose non-pharmacy sales of OTC products for safety reasons, ignoring consumer convenience, but at the same time, they call for a reclassification of 479 prescription drugs as OTC medicines for convenience reasons, ignoring the health risks for consumers.

The KPA said more prescription drugs would be added to its list of reclassification candidates. It even said pharmacists would not accept the ministry’s liberalization plan unless their demand was met.

The proper term to describe pharmacists’ attitude is selfish. They deserve criticism for their crass disregard of consumer convenience and safety.

Chin assured that the ministry would be able to revise the Pharmacist Act despite pharmacists’ resistance. But this remains to be seen, given their powerful lobby and the presence of pharmacist-turned lawmakers on the National Assembly’s Health, Welfare and Family Affairs Committee.

What worries us is the possibility of the planned reclassification of drugs sparking a fresh conflict between pharmacists and doctors. Past experience tells us that when the two sides clash to defend their vested interests, it is really difficult to strike a compromise. The Health Ministry will have to tread carefully.