Nigeria has a population estimated at 198 million, according to the National Population Commission. Out of this number, more than 60 percent are below the age of 30. Business leaders and government functionaries often tout Nigeria’s, huge youth population as a huge resource base for businesses, particularly in the context of investment opportunities, consumption and manpower.
Sadly, it does not seem enough is being done to harness the potential and indeed safeguard the future of this very important segment of the nations demography. Poor funding and infrastructural decay in the educational system over time, misplaced curricula and insufficient technical and vocational schools are contributory factors to a youth population mostly lacking adequate skills for the workplace. The result is the high level of unemployment and underemployment among the youth, which the National Bureau of Statistics puts at 52.65 percent. This is particularly dire among the northern states that also have the lowest levels of literacy.
As the world faces an alarmingly increasing spate of drug abuse, particularly the abuse of opioids and other prescription drugs in recent times, the state of forced idleness among youths in Nigeria makes them a ready target. And opioid abuse has indeed reached such frightening proportions in some states in Nigeria. Opioids are drugs that act on the nervous system to relieve pain. The more common opioids in Nigeria include codeine and tramadol, but opioids also include other prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine, etc.
However, it is instructive to note that tobacco, taken mostly in the form of cigarettes, does not suffer the kind of unfettered access and abuse currently prevalent with opioids and other narcotics.
A documentary recently released by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on the abuse of codeine through excessive consumption of cough syrups containing the substance claimed that 3 million bottles of codeine-laden cough syrups are consumed per day in just two states in Nigeria. A senator from Kano, Ahmed Lawan, also disclosed at a Senate plenary that 3 million bottles of codeine-laden cough syrups are consumed daily in Nigeria.
The revelation by the BBC subsequently provoked a ban on the production and importation of codeine syrup by the Federal Government as well as the suspension of operations of three pharmaceutical companies that were fingered in the documentary by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
Many observers have noted that these actions are insufficient to tackle a deep seated problem that is multifaceted and transcends the abuse of codeine. For instance the opioid pain reliever Tramadol is also grossly abused for its hallucinogenic effect when taken in high quantities as indicated by Biola Paul-Ozieh, the National Chairman, Lagos Chapter of the Association of Community Pharmacists in Nigeria. A National daily on the 27th of March, 2018 reported that the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), seized 159million tablets of tramadol at the Apapa ports. In the report, the Director, Technical Services of the agency, Mr. Femi Oloruntoba, was quoted as saying that 50 tonnes of tramadol were recently destroyed in Kano State alone. While accurate estimates may not be available, the spate of seizures across the country by the NDLEA points to a very dire situation. Tramadol can be purchased across the counter in pharmacies or patent medicine stores. It is also a readily available item in street traders wares.
Youth addiction, which cuts across gender, economic or social status, location and levels of literacy or education also extends to other substances such as cannabis, vulcanisers gum, and many other cocktails that are peddled on the streets commonly known as shepe. This is in addition to the reported practice of sniffing the fumes, consisting mainly of methane gas from pit toilets or underground sewage pits.
Any strategy to tackle this menace holistically must provide the long-term solutions to the underlying causes as well as the short-term solutions that will address the immediate problems of poor regulation and control of the supply, availability and consumption of these drugs.
The long term solutions include getting the youths productively engaged in profitable ventures or businesses, whether as entrepreneurs or employees. This requires a revamp of the nations educational system by providing adequate facilities and staffing complement; the review and update of the educational curriculum to remove obsolete content and faulty mindsets/premises and replace them with elements that are more suited to current realities, along with the reintroduction of technical and vocational schools. This will ensure the grooming of youths that are readily employable at different positions in the workplace.
Unregulated access to these drugs is, however, the biggest problem as the drugs are freely available in unregulated open markets such as those at Idumota, Onitsha Bridgehead and Sabongari in Kano. Besides, the drugs are accessible without a doctors prescription.
Achieving employability of the youths is only useful in-so-far as there are employment opportunities. This calls for purposeful leadership in government and even the business domain to create job opportunities. There must be a proper and coherent policy direction and implementation that will create business and job opportunities for the teeming population. For instance, policies driving improvements in agricultural output by farmers must be complemented by improvements in transport infrastructure to reduce wastages or spoilage in transit as well as policies driving the provision of better storage processing facilities.
Achieving effective regulation of the prescription drugs/opioids market may not be far-fetched as the regulator can easily imbibe the success so far recorded in the effective regulation of the tobacco industry.
Tobacco production, distribution and consumption are highly regulated in Nigeria in line with the National Tobacco Control Act 2015 (NTCA), which established a National Tobacco Committee and a Tobacco Control Unit. The Act also spells out the management of sundry regulatory issues such as prohibition of smoking in public places; duties of persons who own or control public spaces; prohibition of tobacco advertising promotion and sponsorship; prohibition of sale or access to tobacco products by persons below the age of 18; and penalties for non-compliance to each of these provisions.
More importantly, the tobacco industry has long implemented a strict regime of self-regulation. It does not advertise its products on mass media; neither does it sell to anyone below 18 years of age.
In addition, the Act regulates the standard of tobacco products, content and emission disclosure; product packaging and labeling, licensing of tobacco dealers, enforcement powers of the regulatory committee; and very importantly, advocacy in the form of education, communication, training and public awareness.
Therefore addressing the immediate problem of poor regulation and control of opioids and other narcotic substances could require the creation of a national policy on their regulation and control.
– Odusile, is a public health communications specialist based in Lagos.
This policy or act could prescribe the establishment of a multi-dimensional regulatory unit that may comprise elements from the Ministry of Health, NAFDAC, NDLEA and the Nigeria Customs Service. This agency will be empowered to monitor and control the importation and production of these substances, their supply and distribution within Nigeria as well as their availability. For instance prohibition of sale to persons below the age of 18 must be enacted and enforced. Apparently, the current regulatory regime appears not to have this challenge adequately.
In controlling availability, street trading of all drugs must be banned and a task force should be established and empowered to ensure compliance. This would drastically reduce availability of illicit drugs as well as abuse of medicines as they will be obtainable only from pharmacies and registered patent medicine stores. Also, just as it is applicable with tobacco, the sale of all identified opiates to persons below the age of 18 should be prohibited.
However, if all these regulations are not backed with enforcement it is really a waste of time and resources as it would not curb the menace but would make the situation go from bad to worse very rapidly.
Public advocacy is also very critical at this stage. Nigerians, especially the youths, must be educated on the dangers of drug abuse as well as in indulging in its illicit trade. The education, communication, training and public awareness model of the NTCA can be mirrored in taking awareness of the dangers of drug abuse to the public. Government should co-opt schools and places of worship, where youths can be easily approached as well as include public places such as markets, motor parks, mechanic villages, etc where scores of vulnerable youth congregate in sizeable numbers.
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