Globally, pharma companies are incorporating new generation packaging innovations like braille labelling for the visually impaired and smart blister packs for elderly patients. When will the trend catch on in India? By Usha Sharma
Though pharmaceutical companies in India are always on the lookout for innovative packaging of medicines in terms of convenience and patient friendliness, they are still lagging behind when catering to certain segment like the visually impaired. The elderly segment is also neglected when it comes to senior citizen-friendly packaging.
Globally, several pharma companies have introduced advanced technology in their blister packaging which helps in monitoring the use of medication and patient compliance as well. There have been innovations in the pharma blister packaging where ‘smart’ blister packs incorporate moving colour advertisements with sound for partially sighted patients.
If the world is adopting newer packaging methods and technologies, why are Indian pharma companies lagging behind? Is the visually impaired population too small to be a significant market in India? This is not so. Ajit Kanetkar, Head – Technical Cell, ACG TechnoVersity informs, “As per available statistics, India accounts for a staggering 20 per cent of the world’s blind population, which is approximately 7.8 million. The visually impaired population, globally, is 285 million. Of these, 39 million are blind and 246 million have weak vision. Nearly 90 per cent of the visually impaired population lives in developing countries.”
No legislation = no initiative
The European Union (EU) issued a directive in 2005 for pharma and packaging companies realising the urgent need for braille script on medicine packs for visually impaired people. The legislation (Article 56 (a) of council directive 2001/83/EC) requires that the product name, strength, and dosage appear in braille script on all pharma packaging.
Kanetkar says, “The EU regulation has been the guiding factor for pharma companies to introduce braille for any medical product for human use. The EU directive defines this ‘as any substance or combination of substances presented as having properties for treating or preventing disease in human beings.’ This regulation has since led the way for other countries who are quickly following suit. All EU legislation relating to pharma products is covered under the EE-A Agreement and so the EEA areas (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) have also implemented this directive. Even countries like Brazil, the US and Canada have implemented a mandate for braille labelling on all pharma packaging. The export markets like the EU and North America have braille-compliant pharma packaging, in line with the EU mandate (2005) and Can-Am Braille (2009).”
Though the EU directive for pharma packaging mandates the use of braille script and many countries have already implemented it, pharma companies in India have not followed suit.
Pointing out the key reason, Chakravarthi AVPS, Chief Executive Officer, Managing Director, Ecobliss India and Governing Board Member, Indian Institute of Packaging and Asian Packaging Federation stresses, “There is no legislation in India that braille has to be incorporated on the pharma packs. Obviously, companies see no big advantage and they are not pushing for it. It’s no wonder braille implementation takes a back seat in India in the absence of a legislation.”
Kanetkar further says, “There are very few pharma companies that are looking at adopting this technology. Braille on pharma packaging is not a government mandate in India. The Indian government is taking many gradual steps towards introducing braille script on pharma packaging through government and non-government bodies. In India very few blind people can actually read braille. But since the braille script on pharma packaging is not a mandate in India, the technology advancement as well as education of the visually impaired in braille in this sector has been minimal.”
A pricey option
Besides lack of regulations, cost also plays an important role. Replying to a query raised on whether Indian companies are running far behind in adopting advanced pharma packaging technologies, MK Banerjee, Director, C&I (Global), Essel Propack apprises, “I believe Indian companies are aware of the technology gap and new technological requirements to produce new generation pharma packaging material. However, drug ‘price control’ regulations are hampering investments in new plant and machinery to produce advanced pharma packaging material. Cost of new technology has to be plugged-in to fall within ‘price control’ formula.”
Since, there are limited pharma companies practicing in India, it also requires updated technical assistance. Kanetkar says, “Challenges for braille or pharma packaging are three-fold. Firstly, there is an additional cost in upgrading the packaging machinery and be braille compliant. Secondly, braille dots need to be high enough to be easily read, but not too high that it perforates the packaging. The manufacturer must ensure that braille dots are not malformed or missing, while ensuring accurate spacing. And lastly, quality control is extremely critical in braille pharma packaging, for one misplaced dot could lead to costly lawsuits, high product recalls and tarnish the brand image.”
Braille printing methods
While informing about current printing practices against the braille script requirements, Banerjee says, “In order to print braille script (user instructions) print machinery has to be modified with in-line screen print units so that higher deposition of ink or varnish is possible. Most of the primary and secondary packaging for pharma products are printed with either rotogravure or offset printing technology. Both these print technologies cannot deposit higher grammage of ink and varnish that are required to create braille dots.”
Kanetkar suggests, “Marburg medium should be used as the preferred braille font for pharma packaging, as recommended by the European Commission and other agencies worldwide. Also, specifying dot diameter, dot spacing, character and line spacing makes it easier for manufacturers of vision inspection systems to develop readers that automatically interpret the dots. The Indian government can set a global example by leading the introduction of expiry dates in braille, something that is not mandated anywhere else in the world.”
Additionally speaking about the implementation of braille on pharma packs in India, he says, “Although the braille script technology is gaining widespread usage in developed countries, it still remains to be seen how it will develop in a highly vision-impaired population country like India. We also have to wait for some mandate for braille on pharma packaging. Once there is a directive from the government, the technology will develop further, making it easily accessible and cost effective. If the government is able to put in place, some regulations for implementation followed by education of the visually impaired in the braille script through multiple agencies, government and NGOs, then this situation may become the necessity that will drive the implementation.”
With the United Nations designating October 1 as ‘International Day of Older Persons’, it is apparent that global concerns for a rapidly ageing population are only set to increase.
Indian pharma manufacturers also need to look into developing solutions for the geriatric population. In the last two to three decades, life expectancy cycle in India has been increasing which means the graph of the elderly population will certainly move upwards. So are we ready to tap this market?
Chakravarthi says, “India will see a rise in elderly population. But if one looks into the statistics, the number is far less than Europe and other developed countries. However, we need to seriously give a thought on compliance packs, and packs which are very user friendly. One has to really think of how effectively dose packs can be used by elders. We also need to focus on self administered drugs.”
Essel Propack is one of the companies which is an early mover when it come to developing senior friendly products. Banerjee informs, “As we have been learning from the West and also Far Eastern countries, to cater to the demand of vast and growing elderly population, packaging designs have to be ‘senior citizen friendly’ so that one can open and/or dispense the unit dose conveniently by themselves. We have developed ‘easy squeeze’ senior citizen friendly pharma tubes. We also have patented technology for ‘pill dispenser’ that facilitates the senior citizen dispensing of individual pill simply by tilting slightly downward and shaking the container. Likewise, we have patented as dispenser for controlling (prescribed) dosage of liquid drugs (syrup). These basic innovations help senior citizens greatly and the inventors earn their blessings anonymously.”
It may take a long time to bring global technologies to the India market. However, our manufacturers can identify areas where alternative methods can be used to cater to the needs of each section of society. This could act as a differentiator as well as open up new market segments.