Fight continues between Indian online and offline pharmacies

The fight in India between brick and mortar pharmacies and their online counterparts is set to heat up after the threat of court action.

The All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD) plans to take action against the central and state drug regulators for what, it alleges, is a lack of action against the "illegal" operation of online pharmacies, which, it claims, could compromise patient safety. High courts in at least 10 states will be approached.

"A major problem (with online pharmacies) is that the medicine could maybe change in transit. It could be spurious and threaten the health of the (patient)," Suresh Gupta, AIOCD general secretary, told The Economic Times in India (ET).

"It is surprising that the government is not taking action even when there’s no law at present that allows online sale of medicines."

Technically, the current Drugs & Cosmetics Act (1940) does not allow online sites to sell medicines, but interpreting it has become controversial, while enforcement has been lax. The Act is central in the current argument.

Despite the grey area in the law, the online market is booming. According to a consumer survey, 61% of Indians prefer to purchase medicines online because they perceive better accessibility and choice compared with their brick and mortar counterparts and 90% said they would consider e-pharmacies in the future.

India's domestic drugs market is estimated at a value of around Rs 90,000 crore (£10.3 bn).

Online pharmacies, however, are seeking to clarify the process they follow and give evidence that offline pharmacies compromise public safety, namely that many may operate with unqualified pharmacists and without adequate recording systems, while selling drugs without prescriptions. This is claimed to increase the risk of drug abuse, diversion and selling fake medicines.

"There is an industry problem in that there is no genuine way of authenticating prescriptions or preventing reuse. But if it can be solves, it can only be solved in the digital format. We want to engage with the government and regulator and help find a solution. The onus id on the central government to clarify their position on this," said Prashant Tandon, president of the Indian Internet Pharmacy Association.

Last year, a health ministry sub-committee began investigating online pharmacies and their impact on public health. Campaigners are calling for stronger laws to regulate all pharmacy types, while pharmacists are threatening to strike over the issue.

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