The fight to put aspirin in convenience storesFor Shin Min-seo, a 42-year-old mother, trying to find medication for her daughter’s fever developed into an hours-long ordeal because she got sick after pharmacies closed.
“My 10-year-old daughter woke me up at 1 in the morning because she had a fever,” Shin said. “I noticed we ran out of aspirin, so I had to stay up all night putting ice packs on my daughter’s forehead, watching her groan in pain.”
If Korea’s laws on prescription and over-the-counter drug sales weren’t so strict, Shin wouldn’t have had such a terrible night.
“If I could have bought some aspirin at the convenience store right in front of my house, there wouldn’t have been so much trouble,” she said.
But allowing supermarkets and convenience stores to sell prescription and over-the-counter drugs, such as aspirin, antacids, cough syrups and allergy medication, is back in the news thanks to President Lee Myung-bak.
When the president received an annual policy report from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, he asked the health minister where Korea stood on liberalizing prescription and over-the-counter drug sales like in the U.S. and Japan. After the media reported his remarks, the issue has been revived, along with fierce debate.
Drug sales in Korea are currently limited to pharmacies. Civic groups have called for liberalization, but fierce opposition from pharmacists has made the ministry cautious.
To strike a compromise, the Korea Pharmaceutical Association (KPA) came up with an alternative last July and decided to test nighttime emergency pharmacies throughout the country for six months, so consumers could purchase prescription and over-the-counter drug sales at night, on weekends and on public holidays.
But half a year has gone by and the program has been a bust. According to the KPA, 2,848 pharmacies are participating in the nighttime emergency system. However, only some of them are open 24 hours a day. Some close at midnight and others close at 7 p.m. despite staying open seven days a week.
“I searched online for nearby pharmacies that is open at night to buy a pain killer for my wife, who was suffering from a severe headache in the middle of the night,” said Kim Sang-heok, 37, from Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi. “Finding a nearby nighttime emergency pharmacy was difficult because most of them were in Seoul, but when I finally found one and got there, it was closed.
“I called again the next morning and they told me they stopped operating at night since the end of December,” he added.
A Web site operated by the KPA (www.pharm114.co.kr) lists only 43 nighttime emergency pharmacies nationwide, and when one reporter made phone calls at 1 a.m., some of them didn’t answer. Among the 43, only 11 of them are open 24/7. Most of the others close at 2 a.m. Seoul and Gyeonggi had seven pharmacies on the list, while other regions had only one or two.
Even pharmacists had written off the program and any solution to the problem. According to Medipana, an online medical news site, pharmacists expressed doubt at an annual meeting held in December, saying that the nighttime emergency pharmacies weren’t good enough to satisfy the public and it was expensive for pharmacies to stay open for a small number of customers.
According to a report from the Korea Consumer Agency (KCA) last week, 80.4 percent of consumers have experienced inconveniences when purchasing prescription and over-the-counter drug sales after office hours and on weekends and public holidays. The survey of 500 residents in the Seoul metropolitan area was conducted for three days last October.
However, the KPA insists that it will not allow a single pill to be sold outside of pharmacies.
One of the pharmacists’ arguments is that consumers can misuse or abuse the drugs if they’re so easily available.
Doctors scoff at that argument.
“Misuse or abuse of drugs rarely occurs,” said an internal medicine doctor surnamed Kwon, 48. “I’ve been treating patients for more than 10 years and I’ve never encountered any patients who had an prescription and over-the-counter drug sales overdose.”
Doctor Yim Sang-jae, 55, said: “This situation is just a turf war and consumers are the victims.”
Last Thursday, 25 civic groups gathered at the Seoul Press Center to appeal for the liberalization of prescription and over-the-counter drug sales.
Korea currently classifies 21,050 drugs as prescription drugs and 17,270 as general health products.
By Yim Seung-hye [email@example.com]
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