Quite the liveliest health question time of the year (actually it was the first) the other day. Fearless Frank tore into the BBC for misreporting a '65-hours on a ward-trolley' atrocity in Surrey. Everyone said 'Happy 40th birthday' to Minister Milburn, and Paul Boateng got rapped on the knuckles by Betty Boothroyd for telling the Tories they did 'sweet FA about public health when they were in government'.

No, silly, Speaker Betty wasn't complaining about the policy point, which Tess of the Urban Ills is now putting right. She was objecting to vulgar slang, though sweet Fanny Adams is actually a genteel euphemism. As they used to say in the second world war, it was a SNAFU, which means, 'situation normal, all fouled up'. That's a tiny euphemism too, by the way.

But amid the badinage there was a sharp exchange between Mr Dobson and the dowager health secretary, Dame Virginia, between Mellors and Lady Connie as Bill Clinton would doubtless picture the scene. It concerned pharmaceutical price regulation; that is to say, the remnants of retail price maintenance (RPM) which Ted Heath mostly abolished in 1962, helping to lose the Tories the small shop-keeper vote at the 1964 election.

As things stand, modernising Labour - the Gordon Brown-Margaret Beckett axis - is using the (Tory-drafted) Competition Bill now in the Lords to get rid of what's left of it in the name of efficiency and consumer rights. Understandably, small chemists, gathered behind the Community Pharmacists Action Group (CPAG) believe that a price war for 'over the counter' (OTC) medicines - non-prescription drugs, in other words - will allow the big supermarket chains to mop them up.

To reinforce paranoia, the Office of Fair Trading, galvanized by Asda when it was run by Wee Willie Hague's guru, Archie Norman MP, is already busy taking OTC medicines to the Restricted Practices Court, making it harder - probably on purpose - for Labour to amend the bill to continue their protection under RPM. That is surely the safest way to ensure that pharmacists can still be there to play an enhanced role in community medicine (see Labour rhetoric) and pick up the kind of GP prescribing errors I recently witnessed in a queue. Ah, those wandering decimal points.

You don't need to be Fidel Castro to agree with the CPAG diagnosis. Look how Asda and Sainsbury and others hoover up the Lottery ticket market in your area, doing down the newspaper shops; how that arch-monopolist Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins helped force through abolition of RPM in book sales: byebye small bookshops, hello Waterstones.

In Opposition, Labour was clear about this. Its spokesfolk, Chris Smith included, supported the small battalions, especially in poor (ie unprofitable) areas where old people can't get to Asda on the bus. But Dobbo equivocated when challenged by Ginny: 'There is a balance to be struck,' he said - the sort of remark that would have provoked the Old Dobbo to strike whoever made it. What does it mean, I wondered?

The answer is roughly this: health ministers do indeed sound cautious because, whatever they'd like to do, they are unlikely to win a battle with Brown (Treasury) and Beckett (DTI), so they have to box clever.

That will probably mean 'balancing' a loss of RPM on OTCs - so that Asda can sell, say Hedex, as a cheap loss-leader - with greater protection via the (minuscule) Essential Small Pharmacy Scheme, and one other key gesture.

Which is this: SuperDrug is currently leading a campaign to abolish entry controls which have hitherto protected vulnerable areas from predatory new entrants - chains which want the right to open chemist's shops where and when they like. That's just the start, by the way. The big stores want computer link-ups with GPs (hollow laughter from IT buffs in the NHS) so prescriptions can be ordered and dispatched direct to your bedside.

Wow! But be careful. Who will spot the GP's misplaced digit in a scrip factory? Dobbo will at least block SuperDrug's move, I suspect. Alas, there is monopoly trouble at the top of the same industry too.

As I write, Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham are manoeuvring to create the biggest pounds100bn pharmaceutical merger in the world. Whoopee or what? Space prevents me from gloomily noting that mergers are often followed by de-mergers (look at ICI), further enriching the lawyers and the City while enfeebling the merged.