Strong pharma lobby derailed drug overhaulThe difficulty the Lee Myung-bak administration confronted in its effort to allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell over-the-counter medicine showed the influence pharmacists hold in the political arena.
In the fight that pitted the president, the Korea Hospital Association and a civic group called the Association for the Expansion of Over-the-counter Medicines against the Korea Pharmaceutical Association, the latter for the most part emerged victorious. The Ministry of Health and Welfare on June 9 announced the liberalization of 28 over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, but all are for indigestion problems or intestinal disorders, not for pain relief such as aspirin.
During the debate, lawmakers remained conspicuously tight-lipped on the issue. The National Assembly held a Q&A session with Minister of Health and Welfare Chin Soo-hee on Wednesday, but only one lawmaker - the Grand National Party’s Kim Kum-lae, elected as a proportional representative - addressed the issue.
Political parties highly value their relationship with the 60,000-member Korean Pharmaceutical Association, offering proportional lawmaker seats to the industry group, which is normal practice in Korea. In 2005, the Grand National Party named Moon Hee, former head of the Korea Women Pharmacist Association, as its proportional lawmaker. In 2008, Won Hee-mok, former head of the Korean Pharmaceutical Association, was nominated for the party’s proportional ticket. Jeon Hae-sook, a proportional representative of the Democratic Party, is also the former head of the North Gyeongsang Pharmaceutical Association.
Politicians are also sensitive to pharmacists’ political leanings because the latter tend to be opinion leaders in neighborhoods throughout the country.
Pharmacists have another thing going for them: They are very unified. In 1993, the Korean Pharmaceutical Association successfully fought off an attempt by the government to ban them from selling Eastern medicine. And in 2000, pharmacists united again to support a government initiative to separate the prescription and the dispensing of drugs.
“There are about 100 pharmacists with their own stores in my district, and my re-election will be difficult if they turn against me,” said a GNP lawmaker representing a district in the capital region. “When it comes down to it, I have no choice but to support the Korean Pharmaceutical Association.”
The lawmaker said he understands the position Chin was in when the GNP lawmaker attended a pharmacist meeting earlier this year. At the meeting, Chin reassured the pharmacists that the ban on over-the-counter drug sales would stay.
Chin’s position is clear. “I am already getting phone calls from lawmakers to keep the ban,” Chin told reporters. “The solidarity of the pharmacists is very strong.”
A two-term lawmaker with the GNP spoke about the pressure he faced from pharmacists in his district. “I have been getting phone calls and text messages from them for months,” said the lawmaker. “They have made it clear that they will campaign against me in the next election if I support the over-the-counter drug proposal.”
Nevertheless, representative Won rebuffed claims that the pharmaceutical lobby has a hand in the legislative process.
“Most lawmakers support the [pharmaceutical] association’s position once they listen to the explanation about the risk of allowing over-the-counter drugs outside pharmacies,” he said. “Don’t blame everything on lobbying.”
By Namkoong Wook, Ser Myo-ja [firstname.lastname@example.org]
한글 관련 기사 [중앙일보]
진수희 “약 수퍼 판매 오락가락한 게 아니다”
“소화제는 당장 가능해도
감기약은 법 개정 필요”
진수희 보건복지부 장관은 13일 일반의약품(OTC·Over The Counter)의 수퍼마켓 판매와 관련해 “정부가 안 하려고 하거나 오락가락한 게 아니다”고 말했다. 국회 보건복지위원회에 참석한 자리에서다. 진 장관은 최근 보건복지부가 일반의약품의 수퍼마켓 판매 추진을 유보해 이명박 대통령으로부터 질책을 당했다는 보도(본지 6월 8일자 10면)에 대해 “어렵고 시간이 걸리더라도 정공법으로 풀려다가 오해가 생긴 것”이라고 해명했다.
미래희망연대 정하균 의원이 “OTC의 필요성을 강조하다보면 안전성에 문제가 생기는 것 아니냐”고 묻자 진 장관은 다음과 같이 답변했다. “국민이 불편을 느끼는 상비약은 소화제·해열진통제·종합감기약 세 가지인데, 액상이나 생약 성분은 의약외품으로 고시를 바꿔서 당장이라도 (수퍼마켓 판매를) 할 수 있다. 하지만 종합감기약은 약사법 개정이 필요하기 때문에 중앙약사심의위원회에서 논의를 하고 그것을 토대로 개정 법안을 만드는 절차를 거치려는 것이다. 대통령이 (하라고) 지시를 해서 (내가) 안 하려고 했던 것을 하는 상황이 아니다. 전문가 의견을 듣고 당정 협의를 철저히 해서 법 개정안을 제출하겠다.”
이와 관련해 한나라당 원희목 의원은 “감기약과 진통제를 수퍼마켓에서 팔면 약국 매출의 70%가 대자본에 가게 된다”며 “동네 약국이 망하면 그 피해는 일반 국민에게로 간다”고 지적했다.