Go suck a lemon

Published: Wednesday 31 December 2008

Vitamin C tablets scarce, costlier

ALREADY in short supply, vitamin C has become costlier. The National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority increased the price of seven essential drugs on November 25. The authority controls the price of 74 drugs classified essential.

The pharmaceutical industry had approached the pricing authority to revise the prices of some essential drugs since profit margins for the se drugs are low. The price of one kilogramme of plain vitamin C has increased from Rs 366 to Rs 544. The price of coated vitamin C has increased from Rs 353 to Rs 533 and that of sodium ascorbate, a non-acidic form of vitamin C, from Rs 381 to Rs 575. The authority also raised the price of malaria drug chloroquine phosphate and painkillers Ibuprofen and analgin. The price of malaria drug chloroquine sulphate was reduced.

Industry wanted a twofold rise in prices. "But we would ensure that vitamin C is back in the market," said an industry spokesperson. He refused to say when the supply would resume.

Vitamin C is important for protecting against scurvy, common cold, allergies and respiratory disorders. It also plays a role in healing wounds.

Indian industry stopped the production of vitamin C tablets because China, its biggest supplier of bulk vitamin C, reduced production of the ingredient last year. Some units in China were closed since they were found to be polluting and making substandard drugs.

Indian industry depends on China for the active pharmaceutical ingredient of many drugs. About 9 per cent of the bulk drugs produced in China are exported to India. Though india is also a major producer of bulk drugs, most of the bulk drugs produced in India is exported, while cheaper, poor quality bulk drugs imported from China are used for making tablets and capsules to keep the price of essential drugs low.

Although public health experts and government policies do not support increasing prices of essential drugs, the Indian government gave in to industry pressure because public-sector pharmaceutical units in the country are defunct. This underlines the importance of public-sector units, said Amit Sen Gupta, a Delhi-based member of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, the India chapter of the People's Health Movement.

Popular vitamin C tablets are Chewcee manufactured by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and Limcee manufactured by Nicholas Piramal India. Though vitamin C is a small product category with annual sales of less than Rs 100 crore, it is an important ingredient of Rs 1,500 crore multivitamin market.

With the drug in short supply, one option available is to shift to natural sources of vitamin C like lemon and gooseberry.

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