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Competition Authority calls for non-prescription drugs to be on sale in stores

Pharmacy. Photo is illustrative.
Pharmacy. Photo is illustrative. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The Competition Authority (Konkurentsiamet) says that over-the-counter medicines should be permissible for sale in supermarkets, at gas stations and at other retail outlets, in order to promote a more open market.

Some pharmacists and politicians oppose the move, however, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Monday.

Market analysis published by the Competition Authority several weeks ago found that the pharmaceutical market in Estonia had not been opened up as a result of ostensible reforms to the sector made in 2020.

In fact, the net effect was more of a barring entry to new market players, wholesalers and small independent dispensing pharmacists alike, by an oligopoly seemingly acting in common purpose.

In its follow-up analysis, the authority finds that permitting over-the-counter medicines on supermarket and other store shelves would in fact serve to provide a more open market.

Head of the Competition Authority Evenlin Pärn-Lee told AK that: "Flash analysis by the Competition Authority reveals that allowing over-the-counter medicines on the retail market, permitting them to be on the shelves of retail chains, would likely increase competition and, in the long term, would also help wholesalers who may not be able to sell to pharmacies today – to enter the market."

"In short we rather see that this move would encourage competition and so have a positive effect on prices," Pärn-Lee went on, adding that in any case it would make non-prescription drugs more accessible.

Ly Rootslane, head of the association of dispensing pharmacists (EPAL), a sector lobby group, said that her organization does not support this idea.

Rootslane said: "Drugs are not like food. Dispensing medicine requires a consultation. We require drugs at a certain strength, and at a certain frequency. Medicines carry with them side effects, and many of them interact with other medications too, as well as, for example, food."

While over-the-counter drugs carry with them guidance leaflets, these are often too generalized, she added, and in any case practice demonstrates that these leaflets are not very widely read by consumers.

Some politicians have also stated their opposition to non-prescription drugs being on sale in stores.

Reform Party MP Eero Merilind, who is also a family doctor, said that the development would not really solve anything which was in need of resolution.

"When a child gets sick for instance, people can certainly get these medicines," he told AK.

"We do not have a problem at present with the availability of drugs. Every pharmacy carries them, then there are also online pharmacies. There is a pharmacy in every mall, some even have two pharmacies. So I don't see what issue this would be resolving right now."

Merilind also said he did not believe that putting non-prescription drugs on sale in stores would be followed by a fall in prices.

Minister of Health Riina Sikkut (SDE) had said at the regular government press conference last Thursday that there are no plans to redirect over-the-counter medicines to supermarkets or to gas stations. "The pharmacy should be that place where you can get competent advice on the use of medicines."

Sikkut also said that the proposition could also harm pharmacies in more outlying areas of the country, who would then end up having to be subsidized by the state, which may end up in drugs not becoming any cheaper.

AK also asked Evelin Pärn-Lee about rural and urban areas and whether there was equality here – this issue was also on the table during the pharmacy reforms of 2020, though in the event only a small number of outlets closed down.

Pärn-Lee said there was likely not a one-size-suits-all solution here, adding that politicians could consider ways in which economic pressure put on rural and small-town pharmacies might be alleviated.

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Editor: Aleksander Krjukov, Andrew Whyte

Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera'

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