The Golden Triangle outlines the border of the opium production zone in Southeast Asia and encompasses the area around China’s Yangtze River. It is nicknamed the Golden Triangle for its rapid economic development. The Golden Triangle generally denotes a prosperous area or attractive tourist sites worldwide. In Korea, lawmakers, pharmacists and drug manufacturers form an impenetrable Golden Triangle to block the sale of non-prescription drugs at supermarkets.
More than 90 percent of consumers want over-the-counter (OTC) sales. Despite President Lee Myung-bak’s appeal, the National Assembly committee bowed down to intensive lobbying from the 60,000 pharmacists. The possibility is low for the legislation of the OTC sale in the current National Assembly.
Like a crocodile and a crocodile bird, lawmakers and pharmacists maintain fishy, greasy and symbiotic relations. Now public anger has reached boiling point.
Consumers must ask why such countries as the United States and Canada permit the sale of non-prescription medicines at general stores, supermarkets and gas stations.
Consumers want OTC drugs for treatment of a condition not requiring medical advice from doctors. They want the OTC sale of non-prescription drugs which are reasonably safe and well-tolerated, and have little or no potential of abuse.
Pharmacists claim that the sale of OTC medication is hazardous to public health. They argue that part-time workers will sell drugs to consumers at supermarkets. They contend this is a serious threat to public health. Pharmacists claim that drugs should not be available to people like chewing gum.
However, they do not acknowledge they sometimes hire unlicensed clerks to sell drugs. At the drug stores, pharmacists give the same stereotypical instructions like take the drug 30 minutes after eating a meal. Few recall professional comments from pharmacists.
Pharmacists exaggerate that many drug stores will go bankrupt once supermarkets sell drugs. Then consumers must ask whether they must risk their lives in return for guaranteeing their profitability. They boast that Korea has a low rate of drug addiction cases by global comparison just because of the current ban on OTC sales.
They argue that OTC sales will weaken public awareness of drug abuse and misuse. They are also afraid of weakening their professionalism and the appearance of drug stores run by non-pharmacists.
Pharmacists seldom care about emergency situations patients often encounter on holidays or during the night when nearby drug stores are closed. Patients have to wait until the next day when the drug stores open.
Consumers do not want all drugs to be sold at supermarkets and convenient stores. Consumers want 67 non-prescriptive drugs, like cold tablets, digestives and muscle relaxants. The parliamentary panel shortened the list of the OTC drugs to 20 under intensive lobbying from pharmacists at the final deliberation Monday. But even the rugged bill could not pass the committee as lawmakers were absent in the voting.
Pharmacists are powerful. They collectively mobilize funds to grease lawmakers for legislation. Both the ruling and opposition parties pick one or two pharmacists as lawmakers under the proportional representation system. Pharmacists often invite lawmakers as speakers at major events, including New Year’s gatherings.
The paid speakers churn out commitments promoting the interests of the pharmacists. Candidates are desperate to woo pharmacists as they are instrumental in inducing visitors into voting for their favorite aspirants. Once elected, lawmakers try to curry favor with the pharmacists.
Drug makers are also part of the dirty Golden Triangle. They stand behind pharmacists in lobbying the lawmakers. Even government officials smell fishy. Last year, Health and Welfare Minister Jin Soo-hee balked at allowing the OTC sale although she later reluctantly tried to obey President Lee’s instructions.
Doctors and pharmacists are waging a turf war. Doctors want to expand the number of special medicines requiring a prescription from them. Pharmacists seek to expand the list of general medicines to be sold by pharmacists without a doctor’s prescription.
Doctors want the in-hospital drug stores to sell prescription medicines to both in-patients and outpatients. Pharmacists seek to maintain the current rule mandating outpatients to buy drugs only at drug stores outside hospitals. This would fatten their pockets.
Voters need to screen which candidates have opposed the OTC sale at the National Assembly Health-and Welfare Committee before going to the polling stations on April 11. They must await the verdict of voters. The new National Assembly should legalize OTC sales when it opens after the National Assembly elections. The legislative stalemate over the OTC sale will be long remembered as a flaw of the current National Assembly.
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times. Contact him at email@example.com.