HC ban: E-pharmacies mull legal recourse

The Delhi High Court has also banned the sale of drugs online.istock  

The next step for the online drug industry, in the light of the Madras High Court judgment banning the sale of medicines online, would clearly be legal – an appeal against the verdict.

Prashant Tandon, CEO, 1mg, who is also part of India Internet Pharmacy Association (IIPA) said: “The legal process will take its course and we will be making sure that our model is understood well and the court clarifies the order.”

There are compliant players, such as the members of the IIPA, who want to confirm if the order applies to those only in violation of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, he added.

Pradeep Dadha, founder and CEO, said: “We would be filing an appeal and taking the required recourse available under the law. The benefits of affordable and accessible medicines through our services have been appreciated by customers across the country.”

Earlier, the Delhi High Court had also banned the sale of drugs online.

While Judge Pushpa Sathyanarayana’s final order did allow the ban to be deferred until the companies have had time to appeal the High Court decision (until December 20) the key aspects of the judgment have made anxious online companies that are part of one of the fast-growing segments in the country.

Some estimates put the total number of online pharmacies at 250, with at least 50-60 of them termed as ‘large players.’ Mr. Tandon said the industry is currently valued at about “Rs. 1500 crore, and growing.” The country’s overall drugs and medicines retail market, incidentally, is valued at over Rs. 1.3 lakh crore annually.

The attraction of the online pharmacy, for many, is the fancy discounts that are available, up to 60%, besides free home delivery and sometimes, other value-added services.

It is the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, that regulates the import, manufacture and distribution of medicines in the country. While it regulates sales of drugs, it was not clear, as the online pharmacy trade emerged, whether the existing rules under the Act would be applicable to the portals selling medicines.

It was in order to address this specific issue, that the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare published draft rules in September, seeking to amend the Drugs and Cosmetics rules regarding the distribution or sale, stock, exhibit or offer for sale of drugs through e-pharmacies. While currently no provisions exist for the registration of any of these online pharmacies, the new rules mandate all e-pharmacy holders be registered with the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI), and the State drug regulator. Periodic inspection of the premises too will be on the cards.

Online portals cannot sell narcotic drugs, tranquillisers and Schedule X drugs, and cannot advertise their services, as under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act. Under the new rules, complete information on the medicines will have to be provided by the e-pharmacy holders, and a 24/7 helpline should be made available.

The top-level Drugs Technical Advisory Board also recently approved the draft rules to allow the operation of e-pharmacies.

Meanwhile, DCGI S. Easwara Reddy had said late last week on television that the draft rules have nearly been finalised and would be “published within the next couple of weeks.” Soon, a list might be available of all registered online pharmacists.

“So we are hopeful that the rules should be notified soon: even the crux of the Madras HC judgment is that the government must notify rules at the earliest in a time-bound manner. No one wants the patients to suffer and they want them to get quality meds across the country,” Mr. Tandon added. He said all members of the IIPA do ensure that all orders come with prescription, and the request is forwarded to vendors partnered with them, which they are expected to duly fulfill.

Dharmil Sheth, co-founder of Pharmeasy, said the priority would be to make clarifications to the court. “The Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation has already spoken extremely positively about the online pharmacy model (in the counter to the petition at the Madras High Court) and we hope the draft is released soon so that there is continuous supply of medicines to millions of families which are now dependent on online platforms for purchasing monthly medicines.

“And these families are spread across the country - right from tier one cities to a small taluka in a remote area.”