Pharmacies across the country went on a one-day strike this week to highlight their concerns about the threat from e-pharmacies, and the cost that will be imposed by new regulations on the sale of medicines. The strike, called by the All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists, had the support of well over eight lakh pharmacies. But perhaps the only thing clear from the AIOCD’s demands is its intention to protect the business interests of traditional brick-and-mortar pharmacies, even if it comes at the cost of the consumer’s interest. Traditional pharmacies have been knocking at the doors of the government for some time now as they face intense competition from e-pharmacies. Their profit margins and market share have faced pressure in recent years from e-pharmacies that often offer medicines at cheaper prices. While this has improved the accessibility of drugs to a wider population, the concern of traditional pharmacists too is easy to understand. The AIOCD has repeatedly accused e-pharmacies of a wide range of malpractices, including selling fake drugs and enabling self-medication. The organisation has been citing these issues to seek a ban on the sale of drugs online. At the same time, pharmacies too have been fighting the government as it tries to tighten the screws on the illegal sale of drugs.
In March this year, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare proposed the setting up of an e-portal to track and regulate the sale of drugs across the retail chain. The aim was to prevent the sale of fake and substandard drugs, which are estimated to account for a substantial share of India’s drug market. The AIOCD has opposed the proposal, arguing that smaller pharmacies lack the necessary infrastructure to meet the stringent demands of the Ministry, even as the same rules apply to e-pharmacies. With the strike, pharmacists further upped the ante by temporarily halting the supply of an essential good. This is unfortunate. The Ministry’s proposal to bring both traditional and e-pharmacies under the ambit of the e-portal to track drugs is a welcome move. The risks associated with e-pharmacies, especially when it comes to the dispensation of prescription drugs without the necessary checks, cannot be taken lightly. However, the Ministry’s plan on regulating e-pharmacies is a rather outdated one. It has mandated that e-pharmacies must set up a “licensed brick and mortar facility” as part of their operations to comply with the new regulations. This seems like an indirect way of delegitimising the business model of e-pharmacies, rather than a regulation that aims to improve their transparency and regulation. The huge potential for e-commerce in the retail drugs industry is enough reason to avoid such unreasonably stringent standards.