Sat, May 03, 2003 - Page 10 News List

Groups hunt for SARS profiteers


A consumer advocate group yesterday vowed to investigate unprincipled businessmen that are taking advantage of a mask shortage to hike prices.

"We will soon start to investigate any illegal price hikes of SARS-related products and hope the government will take measures to counter unscrupulous businesspeople," Cheng Jen-hung (程仁宏), secretary general of Consumers' Foundation, Taiwan (中華民國消費者文教基金會), said yesterday.

According to Cheng, the most popular 3M N95 mask has retailed for as high as NT$350, while the suggested retail price is under NT$85. Other authorized makers of N95 masks were found to be charging around NT$190 for each mask.

Anything over NT$102 is considered unreasonably priced, Cheng said.

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in late March triggered panic buying of masks. As a result, many prospective customers walked out of stores empty handed.

"I have visited all of the pharmacies in my neighborhood, but can't find a single N95 mask," said Taipei housewife Stacy Liu (劉明惠) yesterday, who was buying masks for her two elementary-school kids.

The N95 masks became popular after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended them for use by those who have contact with SARS patients.

According to 3M Taiwan Ltd, the primary manufacturer of N95 masks, there is a global shortage of the devices after the outbreak of SARS. The majority of 3M masks are going to the nation's hospitals, thus exacerbating the shortage on the streets.

Shih Po-wen (石博文), a pharmacist, confirmed the shortage of masks on the market.

"All of my N95 masks and my thermometers were sold out a week ago and I don't know when my shipment of these products will come," Shih said.

"There has to be hoarding going on, as at first masks weren't available and then ? after the price went up -- they were," said an official with Pro Healthcare International Co Ltd (博登藥局), a retail drugstore chain.

One online retailer of masks, TomNet Life Shopping Net (明日世界生活購物網), said it has to pay higher wholesale prices or risk losing stock to competitors from Hong Kong, China and Canada who are also looking to snap them up.

Vice Chariman Chen Chi-yuan (陳紀元) of the Fair Trade Commission said the agency has been working with major mask suppliers to stabilize prices, but that controlling tens of thousands of retailers around the country is difficult.

Chen also acknowledged there is a serious shortage of N95 masks, but said consumers need to take part of the blame for the problem, because many panicky consumers have hoarded masks as well.

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