Illegal pharmacies are alive and well in Cambodia despite years of Ministry of Health
(MoH) efforts to eradicate them.
According to MoH figures for the year 2000, there are 2,794 illegal pharmacies in
Cambodia and 343 legal ones. In Phnom Penh, there are 224 legal establishments and
400 illegal ones. This is a nominal decrease from 1999 figures, in which there were
2,843 illegal pharmacies.
Dr Chroeng Sokhan, vice director of the Bureau of Essential Drugs, said the problem
of illegal pharmacies is one that the MoH has tried to tackle.
"A lot of effort has been made by the MoH to abolish illegal pharmacies,"
said Dr Sokhan. "The problem still [remains] to be solved."
The MoH has created laws regulating pharmacies, the registering of medicines, and
the importation and exportation of medicines; however, an effective implementation
of these regulations has yet to happen.
In 1997, the MoH made its first attempt to abolish illegal pharmacies. A blitz of
information disseminated warned that the authorities were searching for illegal pharmacies.
For the first three days after the campaign, illegal pharmacies in Phnom Penh closed
their doors. Evidence was found that proved medicine without prescriptions was being
sold, but the illegal pharmacies stayed open.
"In 1997, there was no collaboration from authorities to close down illegal
pharmacies," said Dr Sokhan. "The [people who ran illegal pharmacies] paid
the authorities to protect them. They went to court, got fined, but they are still
In 1999, the MoH formed a committee to combat the problem of illegal pharmacies but
two years later the picture remains the same. Dr Sokhan said that the authorities
have now agreed to crack down on illegal pharmacies after the commune elections.
The danger of illegal pharmacies remaining open is people are buying medicine without
really knowing the effects it could have on their health. Often, people are not taking
the drugs properly or are taking several drugs at the same time. The MoH has no statistics
on how many become seriously ill or die from taking the wrong amount or combination
"We don't have an information center. People don't know who to report to [if
they get ill]," said Dr Sokhan.
A lack of money is why most people go to illegal pharmacies, which offer medicines
at cheaper prices than regulated legal ones.
"Legal pharmacies sell quality safe drugs from good sources," said Dr Sokhan.
"They can't compete with illegal pharmacies. Some illegal pharmacies sell cheap
drugs from [unreliable] sources. [Legal pharmacies] don't have a chance to survive."
A customer can differentiate between a legal and illegal pharmacy by the presence
of a green cross symbol. The symbol means that the pharmacy is registered with the
The MoH uses a checklist to ensure that a registered pharmacy is up to code: it has
enough space, an air-conditioning unit, and a refrigerator. The application fee is
$50 and the credentials of the pharmacist are checked. The MoH also looks at population
density; ideally, there should be one pharmacy per 2000 people, said Dr Sokhan.