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Deregulation for consumers

Posted December. 25, 2010 11:34,   


A man who suffered indigestion in the wee hours of the morning visited several drugstores, though most were closed, to buy medicine. He recalled memories of conveniently purchasing over-the-counter drugs that do not require prescription in his trips to the U.S. or Europe. He grew angry over the trouble in searching for a drugstore that was open. If the government wants to ease such inconvenience, it needs to allow the retail sale of over-the-counter drugs. Such drugs are displayed at the sales counter of a pharmacy, which give consumers easier access to medicine. In Korea, some have demanded since 1993 the legal sale of over-the-counter drugs at retail stores. The Health and Welfare Ministry has also repeatedly promised to allow this but nothing has changed.

Pharmacists’ groups, which oppose the sale of over-the-counter drugs at retail outlets, give the excuse of the possible overuse and misuse of drugs. Former Health and Welfare Minister Jeon Jae-hee took the pharmacists’ side, saying, “The public encounters little inconvenience because there are more drugstores than supermarkets in Korea.” According to a survey conducted in March by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 70 percent of respondents said they “experienced inconvenience because of trouble finding a pharmacy open at night or on holidays.” Singled out were digestives, painkillers, cold medicine, disinfectants, tonic beverages and vitamins as items they wanted retail stores to sell. The ministry, which is supposedly in charge of public health and well-being, is effectively guarding the interests of the pharmacists’ community while disregarding public inconvenience and need. Seoul National University professor Kwon Yong-jin said, “This situation has been caused by the ministry being cajoled by the pharmacists’ community over the past 10 years since the government`s separation of medical diagnosis and prescription of medicine.”

In a briefing on next year`s business plan by the ministry Wednesday, President Lee Myung-bak asked, “In countries like the U.S., people can buy drugs at supermarkets. What is the situation in Korea?” Health Minister Jin Soo-hee failed to give proper examples from abroad. The reality is that the U.S., Europe and Japan allow the sale of over-the-counter drugs at retail stores. The U.S. specifically defines the type and scope of medicine that consumers can purchase at retail stores, including supermarkets, convenience stores and gas stations. Japan approved the retail sale of certain drugs in 1998, and allowed the sale of about 95 percent of over-the-counter medicine at retail stores from June last year.

Public benefits oftentimes suffer a setback due to regulations that protect the interests of an industry. Measures designed to allow capital investment in and expand the scale of a sector requiring professional licensing, including optician’s stores, have hit a snag as well. The cap on daycare center fees, which was set to enable everyone to use daycare facilities, brings down the quality of such facilities and disrupts the diversification of daycare services. The government needs to drastically remedy regulations on the service industry to raise consumer convenience and benefits.