Nigeria’s codeine epidemic: Beyond Emzor

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A certain community in the Lekki area of Lagos was thrown into commotion one Saturday morning. Residents woke up to agonizing screams by a young man. He was found lying on the ground in a pool of blood with multiple stab wounds. He had been stabbed with a broken bottle and the attacker is surprisingly a woman. Rita (not her real name), the young woman who stabbed the man was eventually arrested and taken to the police station. Further investigations revealed a disturbing a fact about Rita; she was under the influence of drugs. She had been at the club all night drinking alcohol and cough syrups containing a very addictive substance known as codeine.

There is an epidemic of immense proportions and grievous consequences pervading the Nigerian society. It has been staring us in the face and we have refused to see it until recently when the foreign media showed it. The codeine epidemic is spreading and consuming more youths, leading to increasing crime levels and degrading mental health. Today, it is common in clubs and bars to find young people consuming cough syrups in high quantity or mixing it with other drinks. The statistics is alarming. Last year, a report published by Daily post and some other news outlets stated that over 3 million bottles of codeine are consumed daily in the Northern part of the country. In Niger state alone, over 30,000 bottles are consumed. On May 2, Nigerian Senator, Ahmed Lawan claimed that almost every family in Nigeria has a codeine addict. describes codeine as an opiate (drugs inducing sleep and alleviating pain). Codeine increases tolerance to pain and reduces discomfort, but it also causes drowsiness and depresses breathing. Moreover, it is highly addictive and very dangerous when taken in high doses. Side effects include light-headedness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, constipation, shortness of breath, rash, and abdominal pains. In very high dosage and under certain circumstances, it can cause life threatening effects like respiratory depression, severe low blood pressure and adrenal insufficiency.

A few weeks ago, the BBC ran a documentary on codeine abuse in Nigeria. The video featured scenes of youths in the North addicted to codeine, wasting away on the streets and in rehabilitation centres. The video also showed a sales rep from one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria, sell codeine illegally to undercover reporters, thinking they are drug dealers.

Immediately after the documentary went public, the Nigerian government which had hitherto been aloof and unconcerned, swung into an overdrive. Emzor, the company under the storm eventually dissociated itself from the action of the Sales rep and issued a press release announcing that he has been fired. But that did not save Emzor from being shut down by NAFDAC.  The government shut down the company’s entire product line, including pain killers, antibiotics, laxatives and other beneficial drugs. Two other pharmaceuticals have been shut by the government

It is pertinent to note that what the government is doing is tantamount to cutting off an arm simply because it is injured. The fault is not solely on the part of the pharmaceutical companies. Various stakeholders are complicit in allowing this problem fester. This issue is beyond Emzor and other pharmaceuticals, and all stakeholders involved should take responsibility. Government bodies like NAFDAC and the NDLEA are complicit because they failed to regulate drug production and distribution and check illicit use of drugs. Pharmaceuticals are also complicit because they have profited from a stupendous rise in the sales of these drugs and cannot deny that they didn’t know the rise in sales is due to illicit use. Although NAFDAC reopened Emzor after several days, the damage has been done to the indigenous pharmaceutical giant, with considerable loss money and brand value.

The government shutdown of these pharmaceuticals is definitely not the solution to the problem. It will rather cause more problems. Hundreds of people working for these companies will be left jobless and their families thrown into poverty. It is obvious that the codeine problem is beyond Emzor and other embattled pharmaceutical companies. These companies also produce several other beneficial drugs, which will now be scarce or unavailable in the market, increasing the hardship of ordinary Nigerians. It is better to shut down the production of codeine and leave the production of other product lines.

Government should also focus on cracking down on drug dealers and enforcing drug regulations on recreation centres. Bars, hotels, beaches and clubs should be visited regularly by the NDLEA to ensure and enforce compliance. There should be more rehabilitation centres to reverse the trend of drug abuse. Non-governmental organizations and corporate bodies should step in to create and support programs to discourage codeine abuse and encourage addicts to come forward for rehabilitation. Our generation owes it to future generation to stay sane and drug free.

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