E-pharmacies cannot stock, to operate through retail chemist shops for doorstep delivery: Draft guidelines

Payal Banerjee

New Delhi, Dec 4 (PTI) E-pharmacies cannot stock drugs and will have to operate through retail chemist shops for doorstep supply of medicines just like food-delivery platforms Swiggy and Zomato, according to revised draft regulations for online sales of drugs.

The draft regulations also make retail pharmacies eligible to deliver medicines at a customer's residence.

Retail pharmacies still home deliver drugs in their respective areas, but if the revised regulations get enforced, they would be allowed to do in a formal manner, a senior health ministry official said.

The Union Health Ministry is in the process of finalising the draft regulations even as Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) has asked all regulators in states and Union Territories to prohibit sale of medicines by online pharmacies as per the Delhi High Court order.

The court while hearing a PIL by Zaheer Ahmed in December 2018 had ordered the ban on sale of illegal or unlicensed online sale of medicines till the government drafts rules to regulate e-pharmacies.

The DCGI order, issued last week, asked all drug regulators in states and Union Territories to take 'necessary action' to enforce the court directive.

The health ministry in its earlier draft had allowed online sale of drugs barring narcotics and psychotropic drugs, by a licensed online medical store.

Currently, online pharmacies are operating in the country without a drug licence as there are no rules framed for the sector. Officials say around 50 such pharmacies currently operate in India.

There are an estimated 800,000 retail pharmacies and wholesalers registered in the country.

'The changes were being made following consultation with the stakeholders after the retail pharmacists expressed concern over their business going to loss with online medical stores getting official recognition. According to them, online pharmacies will offer huge discounts and provide customers with the option of plethora of brands of drugs because of which more and more people will opt for them,' the official said.

In September, the government, in an affidavit submitted to Delhi High Court, said it is in the process of finalising the draft rules for regulating e-pharmacies after going through representations of all stakeholders.

Ahmed, in his PIL, had said that the online illegal sale of medicines would lead to a drug epidemic, drug abuse and misuse of habit forming and addictive drugs.

He also moved a contempt plea in April, contending that the e-pharmacies continue to 'blatantly' violate the high court direction and the central government was not doing anything to stop it following which the court issued notices to the Centre and some e-pharmacies.

In response, e-pharmacies in July told the court that they do not require a licence for online sale of drugs and prescription medicines as they do not sell them, instead they are only delivering the medications.

In the PIL, Ahmed also said since there was no mechanism to control the sale of medicines online, this puts health and lives of people at a high risk and affects their right to a safe and healthy life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

He claimed that the Ministry of Health, Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation and an expert committee appointed by the drug consultative committee have already concluded that the online sale of medicines is in contravention of the provisions of Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 and the other allied laws.

Still lakhs of drugs are being sold on Internet every day, it said, adding that some of the drugs/medicines contain narcotic and psychotropic substances and some can even cause antibiotic resistant-bacteria which is a threat not only to the patient but to the humanity at large. PTI PLB ZMN