Many portals sell restricted-category drugs that cannot be bought without valid prescription

Some buy books online, some buy clothes and jewellery. Some others get their daily dose of medicines from the Internet.

The spurt in the number of online pharmacies, mostly based abroad, has posed a serious challenge to State drug control authorities.

Concerned over the risks involved in purchasing medicines, especially Schedule H drugs, from online stores, authorities are working on ways to curb Internet-based pharmacies.

While buying drugs without prescriptions is in itself a dangerous trend, online pharmacies present a greater risk, say doctors and pharmacists.

The Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, and the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945, have clear guidelines on the sale of Schedule H and Schedule X drugs. These can be sold only on prescription and there are specific rules, including for labelling.

Some of these websites do not offer a guarantee on shipment of the order or refund of money in case of non-delivery of the order. The payment has to be done online using credit card.

There are also online pharmacies based abroad that distribute drugs manufactured in India to other countries, but do not sell within India. These include Schedule H drugs that require prescriptions.

“The online pharmacies are illegal. Schedule X drugs include narcotics and psychotropic substances and these too are available online. The medications are couriered to the destination and this is a dangerous trend,” a former director of the Directorate of Drugs Control says.

While some websites mention that prescriptions for the drugs order can be sent via email or fax, fake prescriptions too could be presented as proof, and this is in no way a means to monitor sale of prescription drugs, the former director says.

“In one instance, officials in the United States found a psychotropic drug that had been shipped from India. This was brought to the notice of authorities here. Online pharmacies should be curbed immediately,” he says. N. Raj Ganesh, State president of Tamil Nadu Government Pharmacists Association, says it is not possible to verify if the drugs are genuine if purchased online.

“We are against selling drugs over the counter and online pharmacies will end up cheating people. As per rules, a doctor’s prescription is mandatory for purchasing drugs,” he says.

Online drug stores could result in widespread misuse of drugs, especially sedatives and painkillers, says L.P. Thangavelu, president of Indian Medical Association, Tamil Nadu.

“Buying drugs online poses plenty of risks. There is scope for malpractice and misuse. If drugs are consumed without periodical supervision of doctors, it could lead to side-effects. Such websites should be curbed,” he says.

Regulatory authorities are wary of the trend. “We have taken some steps and are working to curb online pharmacies. We are holding deliberations with the drugs consultative committee,” says an official of the Directorate of Drugs Control.