The Delhi High Court has ordered a ban on the online sale of medicines by e-pharmacies across the country, while directing the Delhi government to implement the order, reports The Economic Times. A bench of Chief Justice Rajendra Menon and Justice VK Rao passed the order in response to a PIL filed by Delhi-based dermatologist Zaheer Ahmed.

Prashant Tandon, president of India Internet Pharmacy Association (IIPA), and also the founder and CEO of 1MG, told ET that if the Delhi HC order was similar to the Madras HC order (see below), large e-pharmacies are not likely to be impacted. This is because the Madras HC order only acted against those online entities operating without a retail license.

In October, the Delhi HC issued notice to several authorities, including the Union Government, Delhi Government and the apex drugs control body, in response to a petition appealing for closure of online pharmacies.

What does Zaheer Ahmed’s petition say?

The petition (filed via advocate Nakul Mohta) argues the following:

  • Medicines are sold online without regulation, putting patients and doctors at risk. The online sale of medicines is not allowed under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940 and Pharmacy Act 1948.
  • The DCGI (Drugs Controller General of India) has directed state drug controllers to stop the sale of medicines online to protect public health. Failing to implement this directive, the government failed to protect public health under Article 21 of the Constitution.
  • The petition points out that “unregulated sale of medicines online will increase the risk of spurious, misbranded and substandard drugs being sold” and that some drugs have psychotropic substances which can be ordered online and misused. The drugs are sold online often without prescription.
  • The Centre is aware of the risks as the government panel has mentioned the risks of online sale of medicines.

E-pharmacies have reportedly not received a copy of the court’s order yet.

Madras HC ordered a ban last month

Online pharmacies are facing legal pushback, even as the government has been moving to regulate them over the past year. Just a little over a month ago, the Madras HC passed an interim injunction restraining online sale of medicines without licenses, in response to a PIL filed by a brick-and-mortar pharmacy association Tamil Nadu Chemists & Druggists Association (TNCDA). Several e-pharmacies — including 1MG, Practo, NetMeds — appealed to the court that the order should apply to only unauthorised sale of medicines.

Draft policy regulating online pharmacies

In September, the Union Ministry of Health released a draft policy regulating the operations of online pharmacies. The draft policy mandates registration of the online pharmacies with a central licensing authority, and codifying the requirements from such businesses. The rules require such platforms to furnish expansive details about themselves and their controlling entities, details of the directors, partners, owners of the e-pharmacy, official logo, return policy, details of the logistics provider, etc. It is unclear when this draft will be formalised and made into a policy.

Sneha addsThis isn’t the first ban against online pharmacies, and probably won’t be the last until a policy regulating the sale of online medicines comes into effect. However, are these bans being followed through? There have been no reports of e-pharmacies being forced to close shop or issue a notice on their websites saying that prescription drugs cannot be ordered. Wouldn’t a more productive way of resolving this be a dialogue with e-pharmas and offline drug associations? A ban is a knee-jerk reaction, and while we understand the gravity of the situation, there needs to be a better understanding of the drugs that e-pharmas sell online and how they operate. We searched for the Schedule H drugs “Alprazolam”, and at present it shows as “not available” on 1mg and Netmeds. Maybe e-pharmas are self-regulating, after all.