How food, drug producers cut lives short

By Babatunde Ayedoju

Life expectancy of Nigerians has been a burning issue as it continually drops. According to the United Nations World Population Prospect, Nigeria’s life expectancy for 2024 is 56.05 years, a 0.55 percent increase from 2023 when it was 55.75 years. Meanwhile, in 2022, it was 55.44 years, a difference of 0.57 percent between 2022 and 2023. This is a far cry from other countries like Sri Lanka, Morocco and Tunisia which have life expectancies of 77.73 percent, 77.63 percent and 77.54 percent respectively for 2024, according to the same source.

Not to travel far, even in Nigeria, a lot of people have parents, grandparents and possibly great grandparents who lived for more than a hundred years, with verifiable proofs, and these were people known to still enjoy good health even in their old age. Unfortunately, we now have a life expectancy that is below 60 years, with quite a number of people already suffering from terminal diseases even before middle age.

While one may not be able to come up with an explanation for this downward trend in a hurry, and it is not even advisable to assume a reason hurriedly, certain events that have happened lately may give a clue.

In December last year, all roads led to Eziukwu Market in Aba, Abia state, where officials of the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), discovered and intercepted counterfeiters producing a variety of beverages such as wines, soft drinks and other consumables. According to media reports, over 1, 500 cartons of the fake and substandard products were destroyed during the operation, while 300 cartons were evacuated to NAFDAC warehouse. Likewise, NAFDAC reportedly closed more than 240 shops used for the production, repackaging and marketing of the fake products.

The street value of the confiscated and destroyed fake products is estimated at over ₦750 million naira. Also, 10 people were said to have been arrested on arrival at the scene of the crime for subsequent prosecution.

According to NAFDAC, counterfeit versions of Seaman Schnapps, Hennessey, Four Cousins, Carlo Rossi, Jenney, Chelsea London Dry Gin, Schnapp Dry Gin, McDowells, Black Labels, Gordons, Martell, Campari, Smirnoff Ice, Eva non-alcoholic drink, Evra non-alcoholic drink, and Cartel are among products intercepted in Eziukwu Market raid.

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NAFDAC Also said that Methanol, a substance which can be used in fake vodka, is one of the major ingredients used in these adulterated products, just as the World Health Organisation in their Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health estimated that more than three million people have died all over the world as a result of alcohol poisoning.

Meanwhile, early last year, the regulatory body warned against two Indian cough syrups found in Uzbekistan, Ambronol syrup and DOK-1 Max syrup, saying that they were substandard, as laboratory tests showed that both products contained unacceptable amounts of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol.

“Diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol are toxic to humans when consumed and can prove fatal. Toxic effects can include abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, the inability to pass urine, headaches, altered mental state, and acute kidney injury, which may lead to death.

“These substandard products are therefore unsafe, and their use, especially in children, may result in serious injury or death,” NAFDAC said back then in a public alert it released.

Few days ago, there was a news report that NAFDAC had recalled Benylin Paediatrics Syrup manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, following recent toxicity findings in the laboratory on the product. NAFDAC, in a statement published on its website, said that laboratory analysis showed that the product contained an unacceptably high level of Diethylene glycol and was found to cause acute oral toxicity in laboratory animals.

According to Leadership Data Mining Department, substandard drugs are responsible for the death of 50,000 people annually in sub-Saharan Africa, with approximately 267,000 annual deaths linked to counterfeit and substandard anti-malarial drugs.

The same findings also revealed that the most common fake food products in Nigeria are fake drugs, rice, vegetable oil and alcoholic beverages, among others.

According to a non-governmental organisation, HealthWise International, quantifying the exact economic implications is challenging, with macroeconomic and microeconomic implications such as healthcare expenditure, productivity decline, reputation damage, erosion of consumer trust, agricultural productivity, trade barriers, resource diversion, rising regulatory costs, impact on small businesses, and social and economic disparities among others.

HealthWise, in a report, said, “A large study, involving almost 20,000 adults, found that eating more than four servings of processed food daily was linked with an increased risk of all-cause mortality. For each additional serving, all-cause mortality risk increased by 18 percent.

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“Another large study, involving more than 100,000 adults, found that eating 10 percent more ultra-processed foods was associated with above 10 percent increase in the risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disorders.

“Indeed, there is no way to know to what extent food fraud is contributing to stunting, which affects 34 percent of under-five African children, with lifelong impacts on physical and intellectual development.”

In a study on the proliferation of fake food and drugs, Professor Ola Salawu and Mr Babajide Akingbesote from the Food, Phytomedicine and Toxicology Unit, Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA), attributed the menace of fake food and drugs to greed and opportunism which makes traders exploit regulatory gaps and lax enforcement mechanisms to flood markets with substandard and often hazardous products.

“These fake drugs frequently lack the active ingredients necessary for efficacy, leading to ineffective treatment of illnesses and potentially exacerbating health conditions. Moreover, they may contain harmful substances, ranging from inert fillers to toxic compounds, posing serious risks to consumers’ health.

“Consuming such counterfeit food can lead to a myriad of health issues, including food poisoning, gastrointestinal disorders, and long-term health complications,” the report stated.

The study indicated that the scourge could lead to loss of trust in the healthcare system, while manufacturers of genuine food and drugs will be doing business at a loss.

The study recommended that by harnessing their moral authority and vast networks of followers, religious leaders can play a pivotal role in raising awareness about the dangers of counterfeit goods and promoting ethical consumer behaviour. Likewise, the government should come up with robust laws and policies while equipping regulatory agencies with resources needed to stem the tide of fake food and drugs in the market.

According to Chidinma Dinwoke, a pharmacist, the whole idea of fake food and drugs is a “human” thing and eliminating them is tantamount to eliminating corruption and every vice in the system. She said that fake food and drugs are still prevalent because some people would rather cut corners so as to make more money than go through the normal process of food and drug production.

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She advocated that religious and traditional rulers should speak against the love of money and desire to get rich quick, saying that these are the things that push individuals to engage in the use of substandard products in manufacturing food and drugs.

“The government should intensify its efforts towards ensuring safe food and drugs by employing more strict measures. Likewise, citizens, and in fact everyone, should be taught that the ripple effect of producing fake food and drugs can affect anybody, starting with themselves, their children, spouses, close relations, friends, and so on. Therefore, they should desist from it,” she added.

Kayode Ogunmola, a microbiologist, blamed the infiltration of the market with fake food and drugs on desperation of manufacturers and distributors to make money to the detriment of others. He also said that some Government regulatory bodies have not been doing their job well enough, a development which he said has created loopholes in the production value chain of the affected products.

His words: “The question that begs for an answer is that how do these materials, both food and drugs, find their way to the shelf? It shows that people have found a way to circumvent measures put in place by regulatory agencies.

Ogunmola said that Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON) and NAFDAC would have to rise to what he described as a great challenge that calls for concern by coming up with policies to mitigate it. He also recommended local production, saying, “A lot of the fake products are coming from outside. If we are producing locally, it may be easier for regulatory agencies to monitor the production process more effectively.

“The desperation to make money to the detriment of others needs to be corrected and the government should also monitor regulatory agencies such as NAFDAC and SON, to ensure that they are doing their job well. Likewise, traditional and religious leaders should help in sensitising their followers on the danger of participating in the production or distribution of fake food and drugs to the public,” he added.

How food, drug producers cut lives short

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