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New Delhi: Regulations for online pharmacies are likely to be among the Narendra Modi government’s priorities in the first 100 days of its second term in office.

Online pharmacies currently do not fall under the ambit of any existing law, though they function on the principles of their brick-and-mortar counterparts. A move in this direction has been in the pipeline since 2015.

The Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), the national regulatory body for medicines, is working on finalising the draft rules that were released by the health ministry, which oversees the watchdog, in September 2018.

The CDSCO has invited several stakeholders for a discussion in this regard on 10 June, including the All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists, India’s largest chemist association, the Indian Internet Pharmacy Association, which represents e-pharmacies, and state licensing authorities.

The ministry plans to notify the rules within the first 100 days of the government.

“The objective of the discussion is to decide the model for e-pharmacy, whether we should finalise the marketplace model or inventory model,” a senior CDSCO official said.

A marketplace model is an e-store that solely acts as a platform to connect buyers and sellers, while an inventory model refers to online retailers with their own stocks.

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E-pharmacies ‘illegal’ till now

Online pharmacies have become increasingly popular in India. According to an April 2019 report by The Economic Times, the sales of India’s top three online pharmacies — Medlife, NetMeds and 1MG — grew three-fold in the financial year 2018-19 on account of high demand in metros and smaller towns.

While online pharmacies have acquired the necessary licences under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, their legitimacy is often questioned in the absence of a law or rules for the market.

The sale of medicines in India is currently regulated under three legal frameworks — the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945, and the Pharmacy Act, 1948 — all drafted in an era when online sales were not foreseen.

In 2015, the Modi government began debating the advantages and disadvantages of legalising online medicine sales, before taking a decision in their favour.

The next year, G.N. Singh, the former Drug Controller General of India, said that an internal government report on the feasibility of e-pharmacies “does not deny the possibility of medicine sales online”.

“It [the report] just says several laws need to be changed,” he added. “Also, we need a flawless technical system to regulate sales and route all e-pharmacies through a common platform.”

Meanwhile, the Delhi and Madras High Courts had asked the Centre to expedite the introduction of guidelines for e-pharmacies.

How e-pharmacies operate

Given the sensitive nature of the products on sale, online chemists are known to follow the same checks as your friendly, neighbourhood pharmacist.

While placing an order through any of the different e-pharma mobile apps, a customer has to mandatorily upload a valid prescription, an official working with PharmEasy, one such app, said.

According to the official, the e-pharmacy forwards the order to a retail partner — an offline pharmacist located close to the area of delivery — who validates the prescription by checking the name of the doctor, their registration number, address and contact details.

The doctor has to either be an MD or an MBBS, and prescriptions from homoeopaths and veterinary doctors are not entertained.

Once the verification is complete, the pharmacist delivers the order.

Indian e-pharmacies have launched several features to lure customers, allowing them to store their medical records on the app and avail of discounts. Some even send reminders on dosages and refills.

Also read: Indians are buying and selling heroin, cocaine & ganja online, and UN is worried

This is an updated version of the report

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