[Viewpoint] The Bacchus parable

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[Viewpoint] The Bacchus parable

“The true restorative tonic is sold at a pharmacy,” Dong-A Pharmaceutical has said since last February to promote its popular energy drink, Bacchus. It is a very foul slogan. Although many other stores sell energy drinks, Dong-A is claiming that they are all fakes. The Ministry of Health and Welfare has ordered a correction, and the advertisement disappeared this month. Starting late last month, Bacchus was categorized as a nonpharmaceutical product and the ministry allowed its sale in supermarkets.

The advertisement in question was not solely for the benefit of Dong-A. It also took into account the position of pharmacists.

Bacchus is the country’s most popular energy drink. It was first produced in tablet form in 1961. Since it was an instant energy booster and resembled medicine, it was naturally perceived as such by the public. Two years later, Dong-A began producing it as a drink. The government categorized it as a pharmaceutical product, and that was why it was sold only at pharmacies until now.

During my lunch break yesterday, I visited a nearby convenience store. I wanted to check if Bacchus was actually sold outside pharmacies. I ended up visiting three stores, but none of them sold it. Employees at the first two stores said they never get the product even though they wish to sell it. A seller at Family Mart gave a strange answer, telling me: “I have them in stock, but I was told not to sell them.” Asked who gave him the order, he said it was a question he could not answer.

The media has been reporting incorrectly, blindly trusting the words of Health Minister Chin Soo-hee. Although the media reported that 48 general health products - such as energy drinks - would be sold in convenience stores, discount stores and supermarkets starting July 28, this has not happened.

I also visited a larger store. Lotte Mart’s Seoul Station branch has a small section selling general health products. Although I found Bacchus there, very few other offerings were available. How was Bacchus available? The store said it begged a wholesale supplier to get a small amount to comply with the government’s new policy.

Last year alone, 350 million bottles of Bacchus, worth 128.3 billion won ($119.7 million), were sold. Over the past five decades, 17 billion bottles have been sold. The energy drink makes up 15 percent of Dong-A Pharmaceutical’s total sales, helping Dong-A maintain a top position in the pharmaceutical industry.

It is also a best seller at 20,000 pharmacies nationwide, making it a cash cow for pharmacists.

In 2004, rival Kwang Dong Pharmaceutical developed a competing energy drink, Vita 500, and it was a huge hit. In response, Dong-A developed a decaffeinated version of Bacchus to fight the rival and asked the government for permission to sell it at convenience stores and supermarkets as a general health product. But, the plan fell apart after facing fierce opposition from pharmacists, who did not want to lose their Bacchus customers to supermarkets.

In the past few years, public demand has grown for energy drinks and over-the-counter medicine to be available outside pharmacies. Many cited advanced countries such as the United States and argued that the change was necessary to serve the public. President Lee Myung-bak also mentioned the issue earlier this year.

But little progress was seen, as pharmacists protested fiercely. They threatened to vote against the ruling party and the government in the next elections.

Some pharmacists argued that Bacchus could be addictive and abused. But pharmacists have all along sold medicine to customers without any warnings. Although they disagree with the sale of over-the-counter drugs at supermarkets in the name of public health, everyone knows that they are only doing so because they worry about losing income.

Even Dong-A has protested. Why does the company disagree when there are more outlets for it to sell Bacchus? It fears the pharmacists. That’s why the company took out that ad - to please the pharmacists. The situation is worse for other over-the-counter drugs. Dong-A said its production facilities have limited ability to meet increasing demand. This may be true, but I wonder if the company could expand capacity.

Right now, Dong-A does not supply Bacchus to discount stores, wholesalers do. They receive products from Dong-A, supply them to pharmacies first, then give the leftover to stores. Dong-A cannot supply it directly because it fears the pharmacists. The company was ranked the top seller of prescription drugs last year by a small margin over Daewoong Pharmaceutical. It was hard to get there, but it is easy to slip if it fails to win the support of the pharmacists.

It appears that a fist is more feared than the law. Pharmacists are professionals, not gangsters, but they are swaggering in broad daylight.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Shim Shang-bok
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