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Ramesh Shankar
Wednesday, February 15, 2023, 08:00 Hrs  [IST]

As the country's pharmaceutical trade started gradually moving from offline to online on the turn of last decade, a large number of big corporate entities started entering the pharmacy market across the country, especially in the urban areas. As the potential of the sector is gradually but steadily unfolding in the country in the wake of people’s preference for doorstep delivery of medicines, big players are now vying with each other to get a substantial part of the e-pharmacy pie. Close on the heels of the US-based e-commerce behemoth Amazon’s entry into the sector almost three years ago, Indian retail giant Reliance Retail has also thrown its hat in the ring. Hoping to exploit a fast-growing market fuelled by a large base of Smartphone users, Reliance has acquired a majority equity stake in Chennai-based online pharmacy company Netmeds for around Rs. 620 crore. Earlier, another online pharmacy player PharmEasy had agreed to merge with its smaller rival Medlife. Walmart-owned Flipkart has also forayed into the e-pharmacy space which has over 50 platforms providing services to nearly 22,000 pin codes across the country. It is apparent that from Amazon to Reliance, major players have entered the pharmacy race to scale up, consolidate and corner a share of the pharmacy market.

While the nation’s pharmacy market is brimming with activity with the entry of billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Mukesh Ambani in the fledgling sector, the cut-throat competition among the peers has brought in its wake several unethical trade practices like predatory pricing and indiscriminate discounts. There are allegations that while the government licensed brick and mortar retailers are getting 16% margin on scheduled drugs and 20% on non-scheduled drugs, the e-pharmacies and corporate retail chains are offering 30 to 40% discounts by advertising, in contravention to the provisions of drug norms. In the absence of clear-cut provisions in the D&C Act regarding the sale of drugs through e-pharmacies, utter confusion prevails in the country's pharmaceutical market at present. The situation has now reached such a pass that the All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD), which claims to have more than 10 lakh members in its fold, is literally on warpath and it is planning a country-wide agitation against the lackadaisical attitude of the Central and State governments in restraining the unethical trade practices being followed by the corporate entities and chain pharmacies. Of course, the scope for e-commerce in the pharmaceutical sector is immense and if properly regulated, online pharmacies in India could prove beneficial to various stakeholders.  However, there is urgent need for framing the laws to govern e-pharmacies, as the online pharmacy laws in India are still in nascent stage and in fact there are no dedicated online pharmacy laws in the country. In the absence of regulatory guidelines, there is always a threat and possibility for supplying illegal or unethical medicines or outdated, substituted, or counterfeit medications to the persons who order the drug, instead of the real medication. Other concerns due to the lack of dedicated laws include potential lack of confidentiality, improper packaging, and intake of harmful drug interactions among several other issues. In the absence of exclusive and stringent laws, there is always the possibility of misuse of online platforms for distribution of spurious, sub-standard or counterfeit medications. In view of the potential harm it can cause to the public health, the government should shed its lethargy and frame stringent regulations for the emerging e-pharmacy sector. As the situation is getting murkier, urgent government intervention is the need of the hour.


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