ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Competition to Sell Medicines

The battle between chemists and online pharmacies must be decisively resolved.

For some time now, retailers and e-commerce start-ups have been fiercely battling it out in India, and the latestto join are the chemists and online pharmacies. On14 October, a little over eight lakh chemists across the countryremained shut to pressurise the government to take action against the “illegal” online sale of medicines. It is no secret that the retail drugs market provides a mouth-watering prospect and continues to expand with present estimates putting it at a yearly Rs 80,000 crore. The All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD) which is spearheading the attempt by chemists to nip the nascent competition in the bud, claims that the central government is being lethargic in putting a stop to online sales. While the organisation is convinced that it is fighting on behalf of the public health, since online platforms are susceptible to misuse, there is a large dose of cynicism in public minds. The easy availability of many drugs in chemists’ outlets without prescriptions (including antibiotics) and the reluctanceof many chemists to hire qualified pharmacists or pay themadequately are among the issues that have come up again and again over the years.

E-pharmacies, the popular moniker of online sellers of drugs, are a new phenomenon in this country (their number is currently believed to be just 12). However, with the increasing use of smartphones to access the internet and the growing popularity of online buying, this is a segment poised to expand. What is adding to the ambiguity and exchange of allegations is that the law neither provides for nor prohibits the sale of drugs online—the Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940 obviously did not envisage such a phenomenon. In August this year, the central government set up a subcommittee to draft norms for the sale of medicines online and is reportedly studying how this is done in other countries. The AIOCD has pointed out that India is simply unprepared for this form of sale of drugs and has raised the alarm about illegal sale of prescription drugs, apart fromsteroids and other substances that are harmful, if not prescribed by medical professionals. It has also made the interesting observation that such online sale is feasible in the developed world because the regulatory mechanism and agencies function effectively there. Incidentally, the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration had raided the office of the well-known e-commerce site Snapdeal for selling prescription drugs online and other alleged violations.

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