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Tesco, Eni consider selling medicines in Hungary

Tesco Plc, Britain's biggest supermarket chain, and Italian gasoline retailer Eni SpA are among companies considering selling over-the-counter drugs in Hungary when the government permits such sales next year.

Executives from both companies meet with Health Ministry officials yesterday to discuss what kinds of medicines might be sold outside of pharmacies. Tesco Plc, based in Cheshunt, England, has 87 stores in Hungary, while Eni SpA operates about 120 Agip gas stations across the country, according to the companies' Web sites. „We'll probably jump in,” Tesco spokesman Mihaly Hardy said in a telephone interview following the meeting. „It probably won't be a killer business deal for Tesco, but it will be nice to provide the convenience to our customers.”
Hungarians spent €270.5 million ($355 million) on non-prescription drugs last year, about 14% of the total pharmaceutical market, according to data from the Association of the European Self-Medication Industry, a Brussels-based industry group. Only some European countries now allow drugs to be sold without pharmacist supervision. The Health Ministry told retailers it would decide by next week which drugs may be sold outside pharmacies and what restrictions will be imposed, Hardy said.

About 30 to 34 categories of drugs that present a low risk of overdose will become available outside pharmacies, State Secretary Ágnes Horváth said at a press conference after the meeting. Retailers will only be able to purchase drugs from licensed distributors and will be forbidden to sell drugs to anyone under the age of 14, she said. „The key word here is patient safety,” she said. It's unclear whether drugmakers will find it profitable to distribute drugs to gas stations or other retailers, said Jenő Orosz, spokesman for the Hungarian unit of France's Sanofi-Aventis SA.

„The advantage we might get in terms of revenue, we might lose on a marketing campaign” for OTC products, Orosz said. Hungarian opposition party Fidesz wants to halt the plan. Last week, the party won the right to hold a referendum aimed at preventing the new law from taking effect. „Drugs belong in drugstores,” former Health Minister István Mikola said in an interview November 23. „In Europe, there are nine countries where they have liberalized drug sales, and each one has seen surging numbers of people coming to the hospital to be treated for side effects.”

Allowing people who aren't pharmacists to sell drugs also increases the risk that counterfeit copies will enter the medicine supply, Mikola said. Fake drugs enter the European Union from Russia, which overtook China last year as the country with the highest number of confiscations, according the US-based Pharmaceutical Security Institute, a nonprofit group. Health Minister Lajos Molnár plans to allow a limited number of medicines to be sold outside pharmacies, such as aspirin, ointments and ibuprofen.
On October 24, Molnár said he would not consider the results of the referendum to be binding. Over-the-counter drugs have been widely available outside pharmacies in the UK for years and there haven't been any cases where people were harmed because of improper storage, said Sara Coakley, media relations manager for the UK's Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. „It's in nobody's interest to screw up like that,” she said. UK law restricts the quantity of OTC drugs retailers can sell at a single time, though customers intent on overdosing can get around this by going to multiple shops, Coakley said. She rejected the notion that this poses a danger. „You have 101 ways to kill yourself,” she said. „You could buy three bottles of vodka and kill yourself that way.”(Bloomberg)