A price war among pharmacies is set to intensify after a leading chemist chain said it was cutting its prices by up to a third.
The move is set to put huge pressure on rivals to match the price reductions.
Lloyds Pharmacy is cutting prices on eight out of 10 prescription medicines, including big sellers such as statins and inhalers, the Irish Independent has learned.
Almost half a million people use inhalers, but there is huge profit margin on them for pharmacists, one industry expert said. Studies have repeatedly found that medicine prices here are among the most expensive in the EU and up to three times higher than in the UK.
Cash buyers - those who do not have a medical card - tend to be charged hugely varying prices depending on which pharmacy they use.
However, Government measures and market competition have seen prices drop dramatically in the past year.
These changes have meant that medicines dispensed as part of State schemes, such as those which are part of the medical card, have come down dramatically and with more consistent prices charged by pharmacists. Now Lloyds is set to put further pressure on prices with cuts of up to 33pc across a range of prescription medicines.
High-volume prescription items like contraceptives and cholesterol-lowering drugs are coming down by 19pc.
The company will announce today that the cost of 800,000 dispensed items will be reduced. This represents around 83pc of the prescription drugs it dispenses.
The German-owned group is the largest in the State, with 91 stores, and plans to open 60 new branches, creating 500 jobs. Lloyds, run by Roscommon native Goretti Brady, said the reductions would mean savings of €300 a year on certain inhalers.
Around 470,000 people suffer from asthma in Ireland, with one in five children having the condition. Inhalers can retail for close to €90.
Lloyds is reducing the cost of the Symbicort Turbohaler (120mg) by €27 to €59.59, a saving of €326 a year.
The same product is dearer in most other retail pharmacies, a price check conducted by the Irish Independent found.
Top selling statin, Rosuvastatin Teva (30 tablets) is coming down by €3.57 in price to €12.14. Statins act to reduce cholesterol in the blood.
Around 285,000 prescriptions were written for statins in 2013, according to the Health Service Executive.
Asked why it was reducing prices, Ms Brady said it wants to remain competitive.
"This approach is integral to our growth and patient services strategies. It ensures we maintain our competitive position as well as provide our customers with top-class services."
Despite the reductions the company admitted it would not be the cheapest in the market. It is increasing prices by around €1 on 17pc of its lower-priced prescription drugs.
But it stressed that it provides 21 health services in-house, free-of-charge to customers, including body mass index checks, express prescriptions and asthma clinics.
There are 1,600 community pharmacies, with their representative body, the Irish Pharmacy Union, saying most are seeing sales fall.
But big chemist chains, such as Lloyds, Boots, McCabes and McAuleys, continue to expand. Tesco also moved into pharmacy a few years ago. The Government has made large cuts to the amount of money it pays pharmacists on State schemes. Some 1.8 million people have a medical card.
And the Government has pushed through legislation to encourage greater use of genetic drugs where medicines have come off patent.
The Irish Pharmacy Union denied its members were overcharging for medicines in smaller retail outlets. A spokesman insisted medicine prices have fallen by up to 30pc between 2009 and 2013.
He said that the State's chief pharmacist was on record last summer saying Irish people no longer pay more than the EU average for medicines.
But the pharmacist who operates the Healthwave cut-price pharmacy disputed this.
Shane O'Sullivan charges a €25 annual subscription fee with prices on a par with those in the North.
He said his rivals in smaller chemists and pharmacy chains here were charging nine to 10 more than what he was charging.