Cough syrups are manufactured with the intent of medicinal purposes. But as life goes, people soon discover there's more to it, from which they can derive their sort of satisfaction. After a huge outcry on the problem of addiction that Nigeria is grappling with, the country decided to ban the production and importation of cough syrup which contains codeine. Because codeine addiction is a real menace in Nigeria.
However, the ban is not even the ideal starter to dealing with this problem. Well, it's what the government can do, but much more can be done.The ban could lead to other drugs finding their way into Nigeria and the criminal underworld will still do all it can to meet the insatiable demand of the scores of youths who are abusing drugs of this nature in Nigeria.
After a BBC investigation titled "Sweet Sweet Codeine" spearheaded by BBC's new investigative unit called Africa Eye and also by BBC Pidgin, the world got to see the underworld nature of the cough syrup trade in Nigeria and there was a huge outcry when the worrying addiction levels were exposed and the effects of codeine abuse were unravelled.
Olajide Oshundun, the Ministry of Health's assistant director of information, said the ban was a result of months of work by a committee, which submitted a report into the widespread abuse of the medication. For the director, it was not the BBC investigation which led to the government effecting the ban.
The authorities in Nigeria moved on to ban the production and importation of cough syrup with codeine. The remaining stocks in shops can only be sold with a prescription. Pharmaceutical companies were found to be the main culprits in the black market and illicit trade of the cough syrup.
Nigerian lawmakers estimate that the residents of just two states in the country's north consume more than 3 million bottles of it each day. These are staggering statistics, but this is the lived reality of drug addiction in Nigeria, especially among the youth. Dealers peddle it on campuses and on the streets. Teens mix it with soda, or swig it straight from the bottle at “coda parties.”
Codeine is an addictive opioid that is often prescribed to treat pain and is mixed in with some cough syrups. Codeine taken in excess can cause organ failure, schizophrenia, and - when abused for long enough - even death. In Nigeria, it was legal to get cough syrup with codeine when one had a prescription of if there was a pharmaceutical licence.
But the ban has not done enough to ease the crisis. Underground trade still continues unabated. Sellers are still in business, and some of them are feigning ignorance of the new development. Owners of some medicine stores did not display the syrups inside their shops; rather, they kept them in other hidden stores, from where it is supplied to customers.
The cough syrup trade is very lucrative to the extent that if no adequate action is taken to sever the supply chains, cough syrup will still be in circulation. The demand is just too high. A certain shop owner told a newspaper called Daily Trust, "Ordinarily, a bottle of syrup is supposed to sell at N300, but now, it sells at N900 because of the high demand. The sellers deliberately hiked its price, bearing in mind that buyers will still patronise them".
It's a demand that can never die down. Before the ban had been put in place, a100ml bottle of the syrup was sold at N1,000, but in the last few days, the drug went out of shelves and the price skyrocketed to N1,600 per bottle, as revealed by the Daily Trust.
This kind of demand is the one which pushed the pharmaceutical companies to do that which we may all abhor. With full knowledge that cough syrup with codeine cause a lot of unspeakable damage to youths, the employees of major pharmaceutical companies would still supply the drugs to the black market. The BBC's undercover team caught one executive for Emzor Pharmaceuticals boasting he could sell "one million cartons" in a week on the black market.
But even such a ban can fail to address the ever-growing problem that has caused incessant headaches to the authorities, drug enforcement agencies, and even the families of the victims of drug abuse. The Nigerian public health system is marred with shocking levels of corruption and leaks. It is so easy to distribute these drugs. The government lacks enough social workers to handle other major problems, including the Boko Haram insurgency and a migration crisis.
The demand is extremely high that another drug may surface. Adeolu Ogunrombi, a project coordinator at Youth RISE Nigeria said, "A ban has not eliminated the demand for the substance. There is still a huge demand, and a criminal market is going to spring up to meet the needs of the users who are in need of the substances".
The fight to this needs to go beyond a criminal-based approach. Because without this, illegal trade of such drugs will still be there and society will have to deal with the harsh reality of damaged, hopeless youths who succumb to the ravages of codeine syrup.
Image credit: BBC