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Mushrooming online pharmacies could become a serious problem

A few days before the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raided the office of e-commerce major Snapdeal for allegedly selling prescription drugs, it took an action few noticed.

E. Kumar Sharma | April 22, 2015 | Updated 11:48 IST
Mushrooming online pharmacies could become a serious problem

Associate editor E Kumar Sharma
The Indian law is clear about selling prescription drugs. Since buying medicines is not quite like picking up clothes or mobile phones and because we are talking about human health here, drug purchases must be backed by a valid prescription from a doctor and drugs can only be sold across the counter by a registered pharmacist.

Yet, consider this. A few days before the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raided the office of e-commerce major Snapdeal for allegedly selling prescription drugs, it took an action few noticed. The FDA got Chemistonline.in to shut down its website, FDA Commissioner Dr Harshdeep Kamble told Business Today.

A little over a month ago, his counterpart in Gujarat, H.G. Koshia, Commissioner of Gujarat Food and Drugs Control Administration (FDCA), also took an action that not many noticed. It was about Prowisor Pharma, a Surat-based online pharmacy that was selling drugs online.

"It was raided, its licence has been cancelled and prosecution is on right now," says Koshia.

However, the issue of selling medicines online has come into sharp focus with the notice issued to Snapdeal. According to Dr Kamble, it was found that the company was selling prescription drugs online. "We have collected some material and some bills and are we now seeking details from the company and assessing the matter." He is referring to two drugs - Ascoril cough syrup and Vigora tablets-which need prescription.

"We have sent a notice to the company and are seeking some details... We also got their godowns checked in Mumbai but we did not find these drugs. We are also reaching out to other leading e-commerce companies like Flipkart and Amazon to check if similar activities are going on there." While these cases are in keeping with the perception within the Indian pharmaceutical industry that the drug controllers in Maharashtra and Gujarat are among the most proactive of all the state FDAs, it is hard to believe that there will not be similar cases in other states.

Selling of prescription drugs online is a violation of Section 18 (c) of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, as only a licensed retailer is allowed to sell a prescription drug on the basis of a prescription by a doctor that mentions the name of the drug and the dosage. In fact, the law is clear on this.

The Act says: "Substances specified in Schedule H or Schedule X shall not be sold by retail except on and in accordance with the prescription of a registered medical practitioner. In the case of substances specified in Schedule X, the prescriptions shall be in duplicate, one copy of which shall be retained by the licensee for a period of two years... The supply of drugs specified in Schedule H or Schedule X to registered medical practitioners, hospitals, dispensaries and nursing homes shall be made only against the signed order in writing which shall be preserved by the licensee for a period of two years."

The Schedule H is a long list of drugs that need a prescription and range from analgin and antibiotics to diazepam and human insulin whereas Schedule X also includes narcotic and psychotropic substances-based drugs. A  "registered pharmacist" is clearly defined in clause (i) of section (2) of the Pharmacy Act, 1948. Non-prescription products, however, can be sold online in India.

These would typically be dietary supplements, neutraceuticals or herbal preparations. So, how is it that online sale of medicines is happening when the law clearly prohibits it? "It could become a serious problem," fears Dr Kamble and says, "We are bringing these issues to the notice of the Drug Controller General of India (the central drug regulator) so that we could work towards a common approach nationally to deal with this problem."

But then, visit the website "Chemistonline.in" and it says: "The FDA Maharashtra has suspended activity of Chemistonline time being due to lack of FDA guidelines for epharmacy in Maharashtra." Dr Kamble has an answer to this: "There is nothing called epharmacy and, therefore, there cannot be guidelines on epharmacy." The website nonetheless concludes by saying: "We earnestly appeal FDA Maharashtra to understand the needs of epharmacy/online system by providing availability of the medicines to every needy people in every nook and corner of Maharashtra. We hope progressive government will think progressively in this matter and will not create hurdle in availability of medicines on right time at right place with right price."

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