Asda slashes prices on medicines

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A LEADING supermarket yesterday cut the cost of its over-the- counter medicines after claiming that the elderly and families with children were the victims of a pounds 300m "health tax".

In the latest round of its long-running battle to bring down the cost of certain drugs, Asda said it had urged the manufacturer of Setlers, an indigestion remedy, against taking legal action and seeking an injunction against the 25 per cent price reduction.

Asda has been campaigning for three years to break the Resale Price Maintenance (RPM) on over-the-counter medicines such as cold remedies and painkillers.

The supermarket claims that RPM targets vulnerable sections of society, like the elderly, who buy more painkillers and branded medicines.

But David Sharpe, the chairman of the Community Pharmacy Action Group, said Asda's move was a cynical marketing ploy which had nothing to do with sympathy for its customers.

"There is no question that what they are doing will put many of the smaller pharmacies completely out of business and they are simply doing it to increase customer flow," he said. "It is the same as when they do it with baked beans and tissues and once all the fuss has died down, the prices go up again to what the manufacturer recommended.

"It is naive to believe they are doing it for any reason other than making a profit."

Yesterday's price cuts cover seven Setler's products, including Wind- eze, which is down from pounds 3.29 to pounds 2.49.

James Wilson, the health and beauty director of Asda, said yesterday: "If drug companies, like publishers before them, voluntarily withdraw from price-fixing shoppers would save pounds 300m a year.

"It's time that everyday healthcare items such as Setler's are available at fair prices and it's time to put an end to this health tax."

In the past, moves to cut the cost of these medicines have been met by injunctions from the pharmaceutical companies.

But Asda is hoping that recent moves by the Government to scrap RPM will persuade brand owners to voluntarily withdraw from the practice. Earlier this year the Office of Fair Trading won the right to legally challenge RPM.