Pharmacies journey through litigations and another election | 19 April, 2024

Over a fortnight ago, a key association representing chemists across the country wrote to BJP President JP Nadda, calling for a few pharma trade-linked features to be included in the party’s election manifesto. One of their asks was to ban e-pharmacies.

Rekindling a long simmering and contentious debate, the All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists’ (AIOCD) letter said, online medicine businesses “posed a serious threat to public health, serving as a gateway to counterfeit medicines in the country.” Representing over 12 lakh chemists across the country, the AIOCD also drew attention to, what they called, “predatory pricing” and deep discounts offered by online pharmacies. “We advocate for regulations to curb deep discounting, safeguarding small businesses and local economies from monopolistic practices that harm competition and consumer choice,” it said.

A draft notification (August 2018) outlining governance of the online pharmacy segment, saw litigation and subsequently went onto the back-burner. Five years on, the policy needle has not quite moved.

The AIOCD’s call for a ban is not a new one, although it comes at a time when the Centre is pushing full steam ahead with its digital health initiatives. Significantly now, it comes just ahead of the general elections, when political parties make promises to their business constituencies, as well.

JS Shinde, AIOCD President, says they are not against the digital initiative. But there needs to be a regulatory framework within which online pharmacies operate, he says, calling for a system to be able to track and ensure that the doctor prescriptions used to buy medicines online are authentic, the medicines are being given by pharmacists and so on. The policy needs to be in place and that includes a revision of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, which is still to be done, says Shinde. He adds, their own network of chemists are also being trained on digital initiatives.

Discount Boards
Pointing to the deep discounts offered by online chemists, Shinde alleged, medicines were being sold at over 25 per cent discount, skewing the pitch for the neighbourhood chemist who was bound by the D&C Act, that did not allow for such promotional activity. “Placing discount boards or advertising discounts in a price-controlled commodity like drugs and medicines, where doses or quantities are strictly regulated by prescription — goes against the standards of the pharmacy profession,” the AIOCD said. Retailers have their margins fixed at 16 per cent on scheduled drugs and 20 per cent on non-scheduled drugs, an offline chemist said, indicating it was not a level playing field.

Even as AIOCD soldiers on for the retail chemist, the online pharmacy world has been gathering momentum, with the Covid-19 pandemic providing the wind in its sails.

Major corporates are on the bandwagon, including Tatas (1 mg), Reliance (Netmeds) and Amazon, to name a few. PharmEasy went against the tide when it bought out diagnostics player, Thyrocare. In fact, online pharmacies bundle multiple services into their platforms including diagnostics and scheduling doctor interactions — they act like an e-marketplace bringing service and customer together, says an industry-insider. Online pharmacy representatives defend their tribe saying, they play an “essential services” role, especially in times of emergency.

Countering allegations of prescription abuse and easy access to MTP (medical termination of pregnancy) pills, psychotropic drugs and so on, another representative says that online sales, in fact, leave an electronic footprint that prevents the misuse of prescriptions.

The way forward is to take global best practices, so both segments of industry can co-exist, rather than one at the expense of the other, says Sujay Shetty, PwC’s Global Health Industries Advisory Leader. Especially so, since there are access concerns when it comes to the elderly and others who may not be digitally savvy, he points out.

With the Centre’s plan of having an unmistakable digital backbone, it is unlikely that the Government would dial back on its approach, says an industry-watcher. However, there are issues to be ironed out on both sides, and they need to be tackled, he adds.

Retail pharmacy’s journey over the last several years has been punctuated with litigations and deliberations. Now with Elections 2024 just days away, the industry will be closely following if the next team at the Centre will resolve the impasse, or kick the can further down the road.

(Source: Business Line)