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Booster dose for i-Pill

P B Jayakumar  |  Mumbai 

Cipla’s decision to sell the market leader in emergency contraceptives to Piramal Healthcare makes ample sense

It’s not often that a company sells one of its best-selling products to a competitor. But pharma major Cipla did just that on Tuesday, by selling i-Pill, which is the market leader in the Rs 100 crore emergency contraceptive category, with nearly one-third share of the market.

The price it got – three times sales for the product (Rs 95 crore as against i-Pill’s sales of Rs 30 crore now) – is just one reason why the decision to sell i-Pill to Piramal Healthcare made sense. The other reason was Cipla’s plan to focus more on prescription drugs that drove its domestic sales. Amar Lulla, joint managing director of Cipla, says i-Pill was the company’s only major over-the-counter (OTC) brand and Cipla lacks other supporting products to create a basket of OTC products related to i-Pill. OTC drugs can be bought without a doctor’s prescription.

Cipla, which nurtured and promoted i-Pill despite the protests over its advertisements on prime-time television some time back, is also happy that the product which ranks among the top 300 pharmaceutical products in the country, has found a buyer which knows the OTC market well.

The acquisition will widen Piramal healthcare, the Ajay Piramal company’s, portfolio of OTC drugs that include the Lacto Calamine skin care range, Supractiv Complete, Saridon and Polycrol antacid. Piramal has the right credentials to grow the market for i-Pill further. In the nine months ended December, its OTC business grew 46.6 per cent (the total OTC market in India grew 18 per cent) to Rs 84 crore. i-Pill is expected to add over 28 per cent to the company’s OTC business.

Swati PiramalSwati A Piramal, executive director, Piramal Healthcare, says i-Pill has great potential as it is seen to be “empowering Indian women to remain in control of their future without resorting to emotionally and medically stressful alternatives like abortion”. i-pill also has no long-term or serious side effects and is safe to use except in the case of those who are allergic to levonorgestrel.

That’s the theme Piramal wants to harp constantly, given the controversies over the advertisements last year that prompted huge protests with many saying that i-pill was nothing but an abortion pill.

i-Pill , which contains hormones like levonorgestrel that prevents unwanted pregnancies, were allowed to be advertised after the government allowed sale of the product as an OTC drug in 2005.

Cipla had launched carefully-created TV commercial campaigns, since pregnancy is a sensitive subject in India. The initial advertisement campaigns featuring a newly married couple were to project the brand as a product that would help prevent unplanned pregnancy. Cipla created more visibility by advertising heavily in print, metro trains and even taxis. The gaining popularity also led to an interactive website '', to educate consumers about the product.

“In two years, i-Pill helped create an emergency contraceptive market in India with a size of over Rs 100-120 crore and an annual growth rate of over 250 per cent”, says Murari Rajan, executive director of Piramal Healthcare.

The success of i-Pill inspired other drug makers to launch similar products and follow similar advertisement strategies. Mankind Pharma launched 'Unwanted 72' and Morepan Laboratories followed it with its version 'Option-72'.

But the resultant controversy prompted Krupa Profilers, a Kerala based NGO, to approach the Supreme Court in January arguing that drugs like i-Pill are in fact pregnancy termination drugs that violate the stringent provisions of Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act. Though the apex court did not entertain the public interest litigation, the Union health ministry's Drug Technical Advisory Board (DTAB) set up a sub-committee headed by the director general of health services to review the OTC status of emerge contraceptives marketed in the country. The committee decided to set up a different committee to regulate advertisements of such products.

The new sub-committee is yet to submit its final recommendations, pending which Piramal cannot legally launch a new campaign for i-Pill. That’s a challenge Piramal has to face, going forward.

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First Published: Thu, March 25 2010. 00:02 IST