Is shutting down pharmaceutical companies the right move in addressing Nigeria’s codeine crisis?

On Tuesday, 8 May 2018, Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration & Control (NAFDAC) announced that it has shut down Emzor Pharmaceutical Industries and two other pharmaceutical companies over their involvement in the codeine syrup crisis. NAFDAC revealed in a statement that the shutdown was due to the companies’ inability to provide required documents on their use of codeine during inspection of the facilities.

“Due to insufficient evidence gathered and apparent resistance to provide needed documents during our inspection on May 2, 2018,  at the respective companies in Ilorin and Lagos, respectively, it has become necessary to shut down all the product lines of the three companies – Peace Standard Pharmaceutical Limited, plots 3 & 8, Adewole Industrial Estate, Lubcon Avenue, Ilorin, Kwara State; Bioraj Pharmaceutical Limited, 405 Kaima Road, Ilorin, Kwara State and Emzor Pharmaceuticals Ind. Ltd., Ajao Estate, Lagos. This is to allow for a full and comprehensive investigation. The three companies, therefore, remain closed,” the Director-General of the Agency, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye said in the statement.

This shut down follows the government’s ban on the use and issuance of permits for the importation of codeine cough syrup to curtail its gross abuse in the country. The Health Minister, Isaac Adewole, stated that codeine-containing cough syrups should be replaced with less-addictive-ingredient-containing cough syrup, dextromethorphan. Furthermore, the government directed NAFDAC to fully regulate and control the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of drugs, including inspection at points of entry of drugs, drug products and food for compliance with the new directive. The Pharmacists Council of Nigeria (PCN) also issued a directive to “continue enforcement activities on Pharmacies, Patent and Proprietary Medicine Vendor’s Shops and outlets in Nigeria.”

It is therefore baffling that the first move NAFDAC made in response to this action is to shut down production units of the aforementioned pharmaceutical companies – especially Emzor, which has been around since 1984. Emzor has operated in Nigeria without being involved in any scandal and they have proven to be, arguably, one of the most reliable drug companies in the country through their consistent provision of drugs for everyday Nigerians. A lot of Nigerians depend on the drugs Emzor produces over other brands because their products marry quality and affordability.

It should be noted that the Nigerian government waited quite long before deciding to put a ban on codeine, considering this drug has been abused by Nigerian youths as far back as 2005. So many have died from the abuse of codeine and other drugs, and just yesterday 7 May, a boy had a car accident and died in Delta state – located in the South South region of the country – due to drug overdose. That government agencies waited for the crisis to become a sensational news item before taking any action is a cause for worry. For years, many have called for the country’s festering drug problem to be addressed, but the Nigerian government has largely ignored it — beyond a half-hearted intervention at the legislature.

Shutting down the production line in these companies a week after a ban was issued by the government shouldn’t have been NAFDAC’s first move. Why didn’t they focus on recalling products that are already in the market and shut down open market drug stores across the country? In many parts of Nigeria, there are people who own drug stores simply because they have completed a few years of apprenticeship from their masters who also learnt the trade through the same process. Why isn’t the government starting their oversight and regulatory duties from this obvious albeit more demanding part of the problem?

Emzor employs over 300 direct workers and over 10,000 indirect workers. The government clearly didn’t think about what the impact of this on the job created here and what it does to the employment numbers. If care is not taken, these employees might end up losing their jobs because of this decision by the government. Nigerian government, via NAFDAC, has gone, as always, for the low-hanging fruit without analyzing the impact of the decision. The greater problem, however, is that there’s probably nothing anyone can do about it.