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?’