Online sale of medicine need a dose of regulation

Selling medicines online is mushrooming in India as a consequence of booming e-commerce.

June 21, 2015 10:39 pm | Updated June 22, 2015 07:00 am IST

The advent and proliferation of on-line sale of medicines on e-commerce platforms no doubt buttress the government’s case of ‘access to all’ but the recent case of prescription drugs being sold online has alerted authorities to extent and dangers of this unregulated practice.

As such, selling medicines online is prevalent in developed markets and its mushrooming in India is a consequence of the booming e-commerce segment in India. But, clearly selling over-the-counter (OTC) medicines online, which is permissible, is quite different from selling prescription drugs online where the attendant dangers of abuse are high.

“A prescription issued by a doctor cannot be re-used randomly. There is a danger that scheduled drugs can be re-ordered and misused by the consumer,’’ Jayesh Lele, President, Indian Medical Association (IMA), a body representing over 2.50 lakh medical practitioners across the country, said.

“Besides, there are several `do’s and don’ts’ with regard to storage and dispensing of prescription medications that need to be adhered to,’’ he added.

According to Mr. Lele, self-medication is a rampant practice in India, and online sale of drugs would only encourage it. “Indiscriminate use leads to patient resistance which is very dangerous as has been the case with tuberculosis drugs.’’

After a brief lull, the Rs.85,000-crore pharmaceutical industry in India is back to growth in 2014, notching up 12 per cent growth, S.V. Veeramani, President, Indian Drug Manufacturers Association (IDMA), said. “With double-digit growth back, the fledgling on-line medicine segment is also booming and there is a much needed regulation of this new practice.’’

“We are strongly opposed to the online medicine sale as is prevalent today,’’ J.S.Shinde, President, All India Organization of Chemists & Druggists (AIOCD), which represents 7.5 lakh retail pharmacies, said.

Scheduled drugs

There has been a call for regulation because the existing Drugs and Cosmetics Act does not have any guidelines in place for e-commerce players in the pharmaceutical industry. However, it is very clear that ‘scheduled’ drugs should be sold only by licensed pharmacies against a doctor’s prescription.

The authorities have responded with alacrity to the situation, and last week, the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) pointed out the need to have in place a regulatory framework to bring online medicine sale under its ambit. Industry body FICCI has been appointed as the nodal agency by the DCGI to consolidate the guidelines, and it will seek the views of representative bodies such as AIOCD, IMA, Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI) and others.

“The role, responsibilities, and liabilities of e-commerce marketplace and the product sellers need to be clearly defined,’’ G.N. Singh, DCGI, said at a consultative meeting last week.

“It becomes even more critical to have a framework in place when the intermediary is selling drugs where the safety and health of the consumer is of paramount importance.’’

Supply chains

The interest of small retailers would be protected and existing supply chains would not be adversely impacted by e-pharmacies, the DCGI said adding that the aim was to integrate e-pharmacy into the existing system.

While supporting the need for an unambiguous regulatory framework, Mr. Shinde felt existing brick-and-mortar pharmaceutical retailers were prepared as retailers were embracing new technology and “even deliver drugs home in the case of aged patients. But this is all only within the law and prescriptions for scheduled drugs are non-negotiable,’’ he said. “We want a level playing field.’’

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