CAMPAIGNS: JUDGE AND JURY; Price cuts hint at danger of dispensing with the chemist

As the row between the National Pharmaceutical Association and Asda enters a new phase, the pricing war is obscuring the real issue, says Noel Hall, managing director of Hill and Knowlton Healthcare

As the row between the National Pharmaceutical Association and Asda

enters a new phase, the pricing war is obscuring the real issue, says

Noel Hall, managing director of Hill and Knowlton Healthcare



Last week Asda slashed the price of a packet of 24 Aspirin Paracetamol

from pounds 1.72 to 86 pence. Depending on your point of view this was

either the act of a great consumer champion or it was a cynical stunt

designed to draw attention to the launch of their own brand medicines.



On the face of it, the resale price maintenance (RPM) agreement on non-

prescription drugs is difficult to justify. The RPM allows local

chemists to achieve higher margins on non-prescription medicines. Why

should the public pay ‘hidden taxes’ to subsidise the high street

chemist? At the heart of this issue is whether the public actually cares

that the local chemist could go the same way as the local butcher and

baker. Do we really mind if we have to drive a bit further to buy our

medicines from our out-of-town supermarket? We must decide whether

buying a loaf of bread is any different to buying a bottle of liquid

paracetamol for a child with a fever.



The National Pharmaceutical Association (NPA) would argue that it is

different. After all, if your child consumes too much bread they may

feel a bit engorged but apart from that, it probably will not do them

any harm - drinking too much paracetamol is another matter. The NPA

argues that the pharmacist’s role is essential for the safe sale of OTC

or GSL medicines.



Do we value this advice and where would we like it to be given - in a

local chemist or an in-store pharmacy shop? In-store may be fine for

most minor ailments but what about sensitive treatments?



Drugs such as Zovirax cold sore cream and Zantac 75 have given

pharmacists a real opportunity to demonstrate their value as part of the

primary healthcare team, yet organisations, such as the Consumer’s

Association, have been critical of pharmacists’ ability to carry out

their supervisory role, citing examples of assistants dispensing

medicines without proper supervision.



If the public is to back the local chemist they must be confident that

pharmacists are actually carrying out this role and that their existence

is vital to the primary healthcare system.



The NPA must use this issue to show that it is worth paying a little bit

more for a local personal service. However, I fear that it will be

difficult for the public to support local chemists unless there is a

much greater degree of transparency with the RPM.



The NPA will take heart from a comment made by an Asda customer last

week who supported the local chemists over the issue. But the question

the NPA should ask is: ‘does she feel sufficiently motivated to buy her

medicines from the local chemist?’



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