Sparks fly at Express Pharma debate on online pharmacies

Traditional chemists favour ban, online siblings cry foul while legal eagles ask for speedy amendments

Express Pharma, a leading publication from The Indian Express Group, flagged off the first edition of Vantage Point, a platform to discuss and deliberate on India’s most pressing and controversial topics. The debate on ‘Online Pharmacies: Game Changers or Trouble Makers’ was held on January 8, at the Express Towers, Nariman Point, Mumbai.

The panel comprised leading names from the pharma industry. Dr Raman Mohan Singh, Director, Central Drugs Testing Laboratory, Mumbai, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India ; Vaijanath Jagushte, Treasurer, The Maharashtra State Chemists and Druggists Association and Chairman-Constitution Reform Committee, Member Legal Commitee, All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists; and Dr Suresh Saravdekar, Chairman, Hospital Division, Indian Pharmaceutical Association, Maharashtra Branch; Puneet Kapoor, Director, Big Chemist; Mahendrakumar Bajpai , Advocate, Supreme Court of India, Director, Institute of Medicine & Law, Editor, Medical Law Cases – For Doctors; and Dr Gopakumar G Nair, Gopakumar Nair Associates. Viveka Roychowdhury, Editor, Express Pharma, moderated the discussion. The association partners for this event were The Indian Pharmaceutical Association, Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India and Indian Drug Manufacturers’ Association.

The debate started with Roychowdhury shooting a question to Kapoor about his business model. Kapoor in his reply said that his online pharmacy platform can help increase access to medicine throughout India. On being asked about the credibility of online pharmacists, Kapoor mentioned that regulation has to evolve and change and hoped that a new set of guidelines would be implemented soon. When questioned on how this discounting technique works to draw customers, he replied saying that discounts offered by online pharmacies were from the capital being deployed, rather than compromising on the quality of medicines.

Countering Kapoor, Jagushte quoted from the recent DCGI’s notification dated December 30, which urged state and centre drug regulators to ‘put a strict vigil on online sale of medicines and take action against those indulging in online sale of medicines in violation of the Drugs And Cosmetics Act and Rules’. He said that AIOCD’s stand is to safeguard the people at large. He said that unless a legal framework is set up, online pharmacies should not operate. He further said that there should be an authentication process to ensure what has been prescribed is being dispensed. He also said that all stakeholders need to deliberate on this subject before a stringent law is framed.

Saravdekar in his opinion, pointed out that there are several gaps in the present system like the absence of a central database on medicines. He gave several instances of non-compliance issues and self medication, which made online pharmacies a dangerous proposition.

Bajpai chipped in saying that healthcare important enough for a special focus. He made a strong case for a time bound consultative process to change laws, pointing out that to wait till laws were framed would be a sure shot way to harm the sector.

Singh said that the time has come to cope with new technology and the topic on online pharmacies is a burning issue in the regulatory sector. He said, “If we don’t adopt new changes, we will be falling behind.” He also indicated that the regulators were aware of the issues at stake and were working towards a resolution.

Nair stated that the time had come for technology to disrupt the current marketplace. He further pointed out that with the advent of technology, certain amendments need to be done in law. “Online pharmacies are not violating the law of land. With transition taking place, current irregularities will get eliminated. One has to prepare for change and things need to addressed well in time,” Nair added.

Apart from this, the audience comprising representatives from pharmacies, with different business models, also raised pertinent questions. Though there was a consensus on the dire need for change in regulatory mechanisms, with inputs from all stakeholders, panelists remained divided on basic issues. This topic will no doubt be up for debate once the regulators make their move.

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