South Korea Attempts To Open Its Over-The-Counter Drug Market

On June 15, 2011, attempts by Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare to ease restrictions on sales of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs fell short as groups representing pharmacists, doctors, consumers, and the government failed to reach an accord. Under South Korea’s Pharmaceutical Law, pharmacies have exclusive rights to manage pharmaceutical products, including OTC drugs. Public demand for OTC drugs – such as cough drops, painkillers, and digestive aids – is huge, but pharmacists claim that releasing such items for sale in supermarkets and 24-hour convenience stores would be detrimental to public health. Because many painkillers and other OTC drugs contain potentially dangerous substances, pharmacists insist that OTC drugs need close monitoring and that consumers must be consulted on all medicines they take.

Currently, consumers must go to pharmacies or chemists during normal business hours for OTC drugs. Consumer groups have complained about the inconvenience this law causes, particularly during night hours and on holidays. In an attempt to mitigate public hostility, the Korean Pharmaceutical Association operates 59 pharmacies nationwide during night time and holidays. However, these locations fall far short of fulfilling consumer demand, and pharmacies which stay open during off-hours actually lose money every month due to Korea’s high labor costs.

Many experts do not believe that the OTC drug market will be opened anytime soon due to pharmaceutical interests. Depriving pharmacists of the exclusive right to sell OTC drugs would pose a huge financial loss for the 21,000 pharmacies nationwide. The Korean OTC drug market is valued at 1.9 trillion Won (US$1.7 billion), making up nearly 10% of pharmacy revenues nationwide.

Though the negotiations did not yield release of all OTC drugs, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare was able to negotiate the release of 44 items for sale outside pharmacies – including some energy drinks, herbal digestive drinks, menthol pads, and antiseptic ointments – by allowing them to be reclassified as non-drugs, therefore making them exempt from Korea’s Pharmaceutical Law.