By Sola Ogundipe
AN undercover investigation conducted by Africa Eye – a new TV investigations documentary strand from the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, has revealed how leakages in the Nigerian pharmaceutical industry’s regulatory system is aiding the plague of addiction to cough syrup across Nigeria.
The exclusive undercover investigation, co-produced with BBC Pidgin, reveals how highly placed officials of pharmaceutical companies illegally supply codeine syrup products from their factories to drug dealers who in turn sell the dangerously addictive, sweet-tasting mixtures to addicts.
A documentary of the investigation entitled: Sweet Sweet Codeine, captures in graphic details activities of the highly organised codeine syrup syndicate.
With access to Nigeria’s crack anti-drug squads, BBC Pidgin journalist, Ruona Meyer, whose brother has struggled with cough syrup addiction, was part of the investigation to unravel the secrets of the syrup plague and to expose the criminals behind it.
“It’s shocking what we found and how much of an epidemic cough syrup abuse has become in Nigeria. Equally shocking is the sheer size of criminal network involved in the illicit trade,” said Adejuwon Soyinka, Editor of the BBC Pidgin, who carried out the investigation.
Soyinka told Vanguard in an interview that the findings raised significant questions.
“The trigger for us was that we had heard of instances that parents came forward to complain or talk about their teenaged children in secondary school engaging in codeine addiction.
“To us, that was strange and alarming. We thought it was a big story only to begin looking into it and found that the situation was actually quite deeper and bigger than we thought.
“We found that not only secondary school students were abusing codeine, but university students and other young adults too. It had become a staple in night clubs and birthday parties.
“Again, we found that the real story was not really about the addiction, but the fact that those abusing codeine syrup were able to come across it in large quantities.
According to Soyinka, the issue was how did they come across large quantities of codeine, an otherwise regulated product that you couldn’t buy just a bottle without prescription?
Codeine is a classified opiate (narcotics with high potential for addiction) and it is strictly a prescription-only drug. Under normal use, it acts as a relatively mild opiate, used medically as effective pain reliever and cough suppressant.
However, codeine is recognised as a dangerous drug because of increasing usage and abuse particularly among celebrities, teenagers and young adults.
Medical literature says codeine is typically administered in liquid or pill form and relatively safe when used under the direction of a medical professional to treat minor pain or control troublesome coughs. However, users often abuse codeine for the feelings of relaxation and euphoria they produce.
Codeine abuse can develop into a full-fledged addiction that is potentially deadly.
Like many opiates, withdrawal symptoms from codeine can be quite severe, keeping the user in a cycle of use they find difficult to stop.
In 2017, the House of Representatives asked the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, to immediately ban dispensing and sale of codeine across the counter nationwide.
NAFDAC was also urged to ensure that the drug was sold on prescription and called for design of a central database where prescription data could be logged in to help detect addicts and over prescription.
Recent reports by the Federal Government estimated that about three million bottles of codeine syrup are consumed daily in northern Nigeria.