Thailand bans sale of sinus medication

BANGKOK - Pharmacies throughout Thailand have been banned from selling pseudoephedrine-based medicines, Public Health Minister Witthaya Buranasiri said yesterday.

The restriction would not affect patients or the general public, as other cold medicines equivalent to pseudoephedrine are available, he added. There are five hospitals in the North and the Northeast where illegal activity has been identified and there are others, numbering more than ten, where initial scrutiny is underway, he added.

The Department of Special Investigation has inspected 22 government hospitals across the country following suspicion of involvement in smuggling or unlawful prescription of pseudoephedrine-based tablets in large numbers, director-general Tharit Phengdit said.

The 22 hospitals had been identified in Food and Drug Administration reports on "irregularities" found in prescription, purchase and orders of pseudoephedrine medicines, he added.

Arrests made by police between 2008 and 2011 over pseudoephedrine tablets had netted 44 million tablets, he said, adding that the actual figure could have been a lot higher. Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung estimated on Monday that one pseudoephedrine tablet could make three amphetamine tablets.

He said the DSI's board was considering taking over the cases from police, and the directors of the 22 hospitals would be immediately questioned once this had been agreed to.

No FDA officials have been found involved in the pseudoephedrine scheme.

In addition to smuggling pseudoephedrine into Thailand through border checkpoints or airports, producers of amphetamines also rely heavily on pseudoephedrine obtained through acquisition from hospitals, by bribing doctors, staff and pharmacists to prescribe, deliver or purchase it, Tharit said.

From both sources of pseudoephedrine, the producers transport it to neighbouring countries where the amphetamine is produced, before smuggling the narcotic into Thailand for local sales and delivery to third countries. Production of amphetamine within Thailand has yielded a small output, he added.

All hospital staff, directors, and pharmacists suspected of involvement in the pseudoephedrine scheme have been transferred to inactive posts at the ministry for the sake of convenience in the internal investigation, said permanent secretary Dr Phaijit Warachit.

Seven suspects work at Kamalasai hospital in Kalasin, two of whom will face a serious disciplinary investigation. One pharmacist with the Udon Thani hospital is on the run, and two officials - one senior pharmacist and a director - are with Thong Saen Khan hospital in Uttaradit.

The scrutiny will be completed in 30 days' time and those found guilty will be penalised.

Kalasin police, who are probing the scheme at Kamalasai hospital, said 350,000 pseudoephedrine-based tablets had been lost through the hospital, and that there was evidence indicating embezzlement of the tablets through forged paperwork. The lost tablets had been acquired by a former staff member based in neighbouring Roi Et province.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has agreed in principle to the DSI's board taking over the case from police. She preferred the arrest of wrongdoers be immediate once the evidence against them was sufficient.