In the space between drugs and nutrition, there is an intriguing ‘gray area’ with significant business relevance, especially in India.
In a related publication, A.T. Kearney – a leading global management consulting firm has elaborated it as below:
“At one end of this natural nutrition spectrum, are functional foods and beverages as well as dietary supplements, aimed primarily at maintaining health. On the other – more medical end of the spectrum, are products aimed at people with special nutritional needs. In the middle, is an emerging gray area of products that have a physiological effect to reduce known risk factors, such as high cholesterol, or appear to slow or prevent the progression of common diseases such as diabetes, dementia or age related muscle loss.”
Falling in the middle of the spectrum, a large number of Nutraceuticals clearly blur the line between food and drugs, in many cases. In India, there is no clearly defined legal and regulatory status for such Nutraceuticals, just yet.
Why a robust regulation required for Nutraceuticals?
The scholarly article of S.H. Zeisel (Professor of Nutrition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Nutrition) titled, “Regulation of Nutraceuticals,” Science 5435, 1853–1855 (1999) highlighted that in many cases when the dosages of food supplements exceed those of a normal diet, there could well be a drug-like bioactivity of a nutrient.
An example of the nutrient tryptophan may suffice to illustrate this point briefly. At higher dosage tryptophan can exhibit drug-like activity, as it is the precursor of serotonin, which is extensively used to treat insomnia. Many of such points are yet to draw the regulators’ attention in India as much as it should, as yet.
Marketing drugs as ‘food supplements’?
Marketing drugs as food supplements to evade Drug Price Control Order (DPCO) by some pharma players, of all sizes and scale of operation, is not an uncommon practice in India. The National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA), reportedly, pointed it out sometime around 2009.
Not just for pricing reason, but more importantly for consumers’ health and safety, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) should address this issue now with a greater sense of urgency, as the market for Nutraceuticals and health supplements is reportedly growing at a brisk pace today. According to a Frost & Sullivan report, the total Indian Nutraceuticals market in 2015 was expected around US $ 5 billion.
In the absence of any clear and robust regulatory guidelines, most Nutraceutical products, with a spectrum of therapeutic claims, are virtually self-categorized as food supplements, which are not covered under the Drugs and Cosmetics Acts in India.
Currently in the country, Nutraceuticals and functional foods are covered under the definition of ‘food’ as per Section 22 of Food Safety & Standards Act (FSSA), 2006. These food products have been categorized as Non-Standardized/Special Food Products. Accordingly, Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI) of India have described Nutraceuticals as:
“Naturally occurring chemical compound having a physiological benefit or provide protection against chronic disease, isolated and purified from food or non-food source.”
Though categorized as nutritional supplement, the product packs of such Nutraceuticals usually do not carry any “FSSAI’ logo, which signifies conformance to the food safety standards of India, for the benefit of consumers.
Recommendations are many, but no comprehensive action yet:
To give an example, many Nutraceuticals contain vitamins in varying quantity. However, most of these products seem to carefully avoid Schedule V guidelines for vitamin content to avoid being categorized as drugs, and thereby coming under strict regulatory requirements. Self-categorizing these products as ‘food supplement’, helps bypassing this issue, as on date.
Such ongoing practices related to Nutraceuticals need to be viewed keeping in perspective, some of the recent key recommendations made by the Drugs Technical Advisory Board (DTAB) of the CDSCO, on Schedule V related formulations.
The minutes of the 70th. meeting of the Drugs Technical Advisory Board (DTAB) held on August 18, 2015, recorded the acceptance of the report of its sub-committee on vitamins, which recommended, among others, some of the following guidelines:
- Ingredients which are covered under the range as prescribed under schedule “V” of the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules for Tablets, capsules, granules are 18 classified as a drug, while those powders like Farex, Oats and Cereal fortified vitamins are exempted from the provisions of chapter IV under schedule K of Drugs and Cosmetics Rules.
- Ingredients which fall below the range as prescribed under schedule “V” shall be classified as food. However, if there is a claim for treatment, mitigation or prevention of any diseases or disorder, then it will be classified as a drug.
- Ingredients which are within Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) levels, but fall under the range as prescribed under schedule V Drugs and Cosmetics Rules shall be classified under drug as it is already mentioned in the rules.
- Products containing ingredients which are neither covered under Schedule V nor fall within RDA, these can be classified as unprovable products under Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, unless otherwise specifically permitted by the Licensing Authorities of drugs based on major purpose of the item (like food/drug).
- Whenever there are additional ingredients than those given in schedule V, including some of herbal ingredients, a separate and conscious view has to be taken about the safety and efficacy of the drug
- Any product containing herbal ingredients shall be dealt with by the food or drug authority based on the above principles.
The same subcommittee, on June 12, 2015, after discussing each of some specified products, with a claim of falling in non-drug category, as per directions of the Hon’ble High Court of Patna, recommended categorization of some of the well-known brands brands, such as, Revital (Ranbaxy) and A to Z capsules (Alkem) as drugs. The sub-committee report was then uploaded in the CDSCO website for stakeholders’ comment.
Could there be ‘irrational FDC ban’ like an issue with Nutraceuticals?
The answer to this question is anybody’s guess at this point of time. However, such a possibility can be just wished away either.
This lurking fear stems from the recent notification of FSSAI dated March 30, 2016, which states as follows:
“It has been decided that till the standards of Nutraceuticals, food supplements and health supplements are finally notified, the enforcement activities against such food business operators may be restricted to testing of these products with respect to requirements given in the draft notification on such products of September 9, 2015″.
However, it clarifies that the companies will get an exemption, if such products were available in the market before the Food Safety and Standards Act came into effect in 2011, or if product approval was pending on August 19, 2015.
The key objective of the above September 9, 2015, FSSAI draft notification was to ensure that Nutraceuticals, health and food supplements and other such products are not sold as medicines with therapeutic claims. Thus, asking the industry players to send their suggestions and objections to the proposal, this draft notification indicates, among others, that all such products should:
- Adhere to the proposed permissible limits of various minerals, vitamins, plant or botanical-based ingredients, among others.
- Adhere to the proposed list of food additives used in all these categories of products, besides labelling norms, every package must carry the words “Food” or “Health Supplement” and prominently display “Not for Medicinal Use” on the label.
- Give a disclaimer on the package that the food or health supplement should not be used as a substitute for a varied diet.
- Clearly indicate on the label that “this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease”, besides information on recommended dosages, among others.
As this notification is expected to cover all products, which are marketed as food supplements, many Nutraceuticals manufacturers, reportedly, fear that it could effectively mean a ban on virtually all those brands, self-categorized as food or nutritional supplement, and launched post 2011.
If it happens, the saga of ban of a large number of irrational Fixed-Dose Combinations (FDCs) of drugs, that includes some top-selling pharma brands and is now sub judice, could get extended to the Nutraceuticals sector too.
Nonetheless, the bottom-line is that a robust mechanism to effectively regulate and monitor Nutraceuticals in India, is yet to see the light of the day.
Crazy marketing of Nutraceuticals:
Despite regulatory and marketing restrictions to the therapeutic claims for this category of drugs, Nutraceuticals are mostly promoted to the doctors, just as any other ethical pharma products in India.
Consequently, these are widely prescribed by the medical profession, not just as nutritional supplements, but also for the treatment of disease conditions, ranging from obesity to arthritis, osteoporosis, cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, anti-lipid, gastrointestinal conditions, dementia, age-related muscle loss, pain management and even for fertility. All these are generally based on off-label therapeutic claims of the respective manufacturers.
Being advertised in the mass media too:
To illustrate this point, I would give an example of a well known brand in India. As I see from the Government records, i.e. from the minutes of the 68th meeting of the DTAB sub-committee held on June 12, 2015 that it had recommended Revital’s (Ranbaxy) categorization under drug.
As we all know that, as per drugs and Cosmetics Act of India, drugs cannot be advertised in the mass media, except Schedule K drugs, such as Aspirin and paracetamol. In that sense, I find it difficult to fathom, how is Revital then, which highlights a naturally occurring substance fortified with vitamins and minerals, advertised even on the Television, along with a top celebrity endorsement?
A recent notification on phytochemicals:
As I mentioned in my article in this Blog on December 21, 2015, titled “Nutraceuticals: A Major regulatory Step That Was Long Overdue”, partly responding to the growing demand for regulatory intervention in this important matter, on November 30, 2015, by a gazette notification, the Government of India included phytopharmaceutical drugs under a separate definition in the Drugs & Cosmetics (Eighth Amendment) Rules, 2015, effective that date.
This regulatory action followed the rapidly growing use of these drugs in India, which includes purified and standardized fraction with defined minimum four bio-active or phytochemical compounds.
On the ground, this significant regulatory measure would require the pharma players to submit the specified data on phytopharmaceutical drugs, along with necessary applications for conduct clinical trial or import or manufacture of these products in the country.
However, this is no more than half-measure in this direction. Hopefully, this will be followed by final action on the DTAB recommendations on vitamins, and final notification of FSSAI on standards of Nutraceuticals, food and health supplements. A well-integrated action of the CDSCO and FSSAI, would possibly help to contain the unregulated proliferation of various types of Nutraceutical products coming into the Indian market, prescribed by the doctors and consumed by the people, sans any scientific evidence based efficacy, safety and quality standards.
Manufacturers’ business interest also can’t just be ignored:
While there is a pressing need to enforce regulatory discipline for claimed efficacy, safety and high quality standards for the Nutraceuticals to protect consumers’ health interest, commercial interest of such drug manufacturers can’t also just be ignored. If that happens, it will be unfair.
Thus, one of the ways to encourage the manufacturers to expand this market, I reckon, could well be categorizing the Nutraceuticals offering health benefits, under a separate category altogether, which will be kept out of any form of drug price control.
The manufacturers of Nutraceuticals still keep charting in a very relaxed regulatory space. Currently, there is no robust and transparent process in place to standardize and scientifically evaluate safety and efficacy of these products on an ongoing basis. This scenario should not be allowed to continue, any longer.
Appropriate control of standardized Nutraceutical manufacturing, regular monitoring of the same and scientific evidence-based marketing approval process of all such products, therefore, require to be well-well regulated. The requirement for stringent conformance to the set cGMP standards would ensure desired safety, efficacy and high quality of nutraceutical products for the consumers.
The recent decisions of the Union ministry of Ayush for setting up a structured regulatory framework, within the CDSCO, for all Ayush drugs and to allow marketing of any new Ayurvedic medicine only after successful completion of clinical trials to ensure its safety and efficacy, are indeed encouraging.
Just as Ayurvedic products, all Nutraceuticals, not being essential medicines, should always be kept outside price control in any form. It should happen in tandem with the Government’s taking a bold step to make the prevailing fragile regulatory space for the Nutraceuticals a robust one, creating a win-win situation for all.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.