TIANJIN -- Not long ago, Wang Qing could spend a few dozen yuan on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to chase his cold away. But now the price has soared into the hundreds.
"I cannot afford TCM any more," Wang lamented.
Recently, the price of "Lifei Pian," a TCM medicine to eliminate phlegm, has doubled in price to 50.9 yuan ($7.5).
The cost of other TCM medicines, including ginseng tablets and remedies for treating children's lung diseases, has surged.
TCM's increasing cost has many concerned. Netizen "Nanhaiweishi" worries that if TCM becomes too expensive and only for the rich, future generations may lose touch with it, which would be a blow to the nation's intangible cultural heritage.
Experts say there are many reasons for TCM's rising prices.
Yang Shengchao, an associate professor at Yunnan Agricultural University, said excessive excavation was to blame.
A study by researchers at Chengdu University of TCM in southwestern Sichuan province shows that "Rhizoma Paridis," a raw material for a type of TCM that treats poisonous snake bites, is now hard to find in Kunming, where it originates from.
"It takes about 10 years for 'Rhizoma Paridis' to grow to fist-size, but now they are usually dug up long before they mature," Yang said.
He said fist-sized "Rhizoma Paridis" is hardly seen now, and the price has soared to more than 200 yuan per kilogram from only several yuan in the late 1990s.
It might be assumed that farmers are benefiting from the price surge, however, they have gained little or nothing, according to Chen Wenguang, director of the agricultural bureau of Santai county in Sichuan's Mianyang, a major TCM production base.
Chen said TCM raw materials go through lengthly processing before getting to pharmaceutical companies.
"Farmers generally do not have storehouses, so they have to sell the entire amount of raw materials they've grown. Prices are decided by dealers," he said.
Zhou Fengqin, professor of the Shandong University of TCM, said the hoarding of medicinal ingredients by some farmers and dealers has caused the price increases.
Other factors include changes in the herbs' growing environment, rising production costs and a labor shortage, which makes the output of TCM raw materials unstable, Zhou said.
She said production of medicinal materials is easily affected by the environment and climate change.
In addition, Zhou said TCM is now pursued by a greater number of industries, and this had led to higher demand and subsequently, higher prices.
Xian Sheng of the China Association of TCM said that compared with other medicines, more money is needed for TCM's storage and processing, as its guaranteed-quality period is very short.
"Most TCM enterprises gather raw material from distributors, instead of storing it for themselves, so the prices fluctuate with supply and demand," he said.
However, large companies such as Beijing TRT have their own production bases, which ensure an abundant supply of its products.
The government stepped in on May 5, as the Ministry of Commerce issued the first guidelines for the development of the TCM, emphasizing that the government would regulate the herb market over the next five years, focusing on tests of harmful material residue and quality inspections, as well as establishing a raw material storage system.
Yang Fan, manager of Lotus TCM wholesale market in Chengdu, suggested that an online platform should be set up to publish information on TCM market movement, production cost, and trading volume in order to maintain balanced prices.
He said the platform could prevent dealers from hoarding herbal medicine for speculation and create a more transparent trading environment.