The Finance Ministry has exempted 27 medicines, which are supplied free of cost by pharmaceutical companies under their patient assistance programmes, from customs duty.

Seventeen of these medicines are used in treatment of different kinds of cancers, including blood, prostrate and ovarian. High prices of chemotherapy drugs make cancer treatment unaffordable for many in India.

Even as the government has been attempting to control prices of some of the cancer drugs listed under the National List of Essential Medicines, many of these continue to remain out of reach. For example, Halaven, from Eisai Pharmaceuticals, which is used to treat metastatic breast cancer, can cost about ₹4.8 lakh for each cycle, with average treatment running over four cycles.

Similarly, one vial of Velcade 3.5 mg, produced by Janssen India, Johnson & Johnson, and used to treat progressive multiple myeloma, costs over ₹60,000 for one vial and the patient is required to take the medicine twice a week for over six weeks.

Sprycel (Dasatinib) by Bristol Myers Squibb India, which has also been granted exemption from customs duty for the purpose of free distribution costs ₹3,287 per 50 mg tablet and costs a patient over ₹23 lakh over a year. The medicine is used to treat chronic myelogenous leukaemia.

The notification by Finance Ministry, which was issued on Thursday, however, only pertains to the medicines being imported by the companies for free distribution under its patient assistance programmes and will not impact the prices of the medicines in the market.

The notification said that the government has taken this step in view of public interest.

Some of the other medicines that have been granted custom duty exemptions are Simponi from Janssen, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, Zonegran from Eisai Pharmaceuticals used for epilepsy and Invega from Janssen used to treat schizophrenia.

The pharmaceutical companies, whose medicines have received this waiver, would have to maintain records of the patients to whom the medicines are being supplied.