Sri Lankan ban on branded drugs will help India

By P.K. Balachandran, IANS

Colombo : Indian pharmaceutical companies are likely to benefit from Sri Lanka’s ban on the prescription of branded drugs, trade sources say.

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“The preference that will be given to generic drugs from now on will benefit Indian manufacturers most because India is a leader in the manufacture of generic drugs,” a trade source told IANS on condition of anonymity.

“As it is, drugs imported from India account for 50 percent of the medicines imported by Sri Lanka and, mind you, Sri Lanka imports almost all its medicines,” he pointed out.

Sri Lankan Health Minister Nimal Sripala de Silva had said that from Jan 1, 2008, doctors would not be able to prescribe branded drugs. They could only mention generic names in their prescriptions.

The measure had been taken to bring down the cost of treatment, as drugs sold under generic names are much cheaper than branded ones.

“However, there is something else which Indian drug manufacturers will have to worry about. This is a move by the Sri Lankan government to draft a bill to control and restrict the number of drugs to be imported and to put a cap on their prices,” the source said.

“All big drug manufacturers, including some in India, will be forced to ponder if it is worthwhile reaching out to the Sri Lankan market, which, as it is, is a small one,” the source warned.

“Drug companies all over the world are not charitable organisations. They are in the business to make a profit,” he pointed out.

The bill in question is yet to be presented to parliament. But an Indian diplomat told IANS that the government of India had already taken up the matter with Sri Lanka to help minimise the possible impact of the planned measure on Indian manufacturers.

“Among the things we are doing is to get the process of registration of drugs simplified,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The Sri Lankan government is very concerned about the high prices of medicines in the island. Medicines from all over the world are available here and the prices are quite high, compared with India and Pakistan.

Sri Lankan doctors often prescribe costly, Western-made drugs, as these have a good reputation in the market and patients also want to buy them, no matter what the cost.

Some Western medicines are eight to 10 times costlier than their Indian equivalents. But the poor majority cannot afford these and are often forced to do without the medicines.

It is said in defence of the government’s measures that the poor need not fear as even the most expensive drugs are available free of charge in the many government hospitals that dot Sri Lanka.

But patients, except the very poor, increasingly prefer to be treated in the better maintained and staffed private hospitals, which have mushroomed lately, though the treatment here is costly and the drugs prescribed may also be much more expensive.

Sri Lankan doctors, who are a closed community zealously guarding their privileged status, have given vent to their feelings against the government’s recent action and future plans. They feel professionally shackled by the curbs, and point out the problems that these will create for the patients.

“How will a patient know which particular brand of a drug he should buy from the pharmacist, when the prescription mentions only a generic name? Is he in a position to know the quality of the drug he is buying?” asked Terrence Perera, who serves poor slum dwellers along the Wellawatta canal in Colombo city.

“It is the duty of the doctors to guide the patient to the most effective brand,” Perera told IANS.

The Sunday Times reported that doctors feared criminal action if they prescribed a branded drug and were anxious to know the details of the government’s notification, which had not been widely circulated.