•Experts, producers warn against rise of fake alcoholic bitters
By HENRY OKONKWO
At 9: 30am Thursday morning, a group of young men stood beside a roadside alcohol-selling kiosk under the Ojuelegba Bridge, Lagos. Each of them clutched a plastic bottle of Ise nla Gbaremu- a brownish alcoholic herbal concoction produced in the streets of Mushin. They threw their heads back, poured sizeable portions of the liquor from the bottle straight into their mouths, gaggled and then swallowed. At only N100 per bottle the young men could afford to quaff and binge themselves on the local brew. “It cures everything,” said Opeyemi, one of them, as he guzzled the herbal liquor. According to him Ise nla Gbaremu is not just their daily dose of getting high for the day, but, they take it also because of its efficacy in curing diseases such as pile, diabetes and sexual dysfunction.
Today, like Opeyemi and his friends, millions of Nigerians are loyal drinkers of the various brands of alcoholic herbal bitters.
However medical experts and herbal beverage producers have cautioned all to be wary of the numerous unlicensed herbal bitters on the market.
Before now such ailments had often been treated with foreign packaged herbal, the most popular one of which is Sweedish Bitters. They were however, soon joined by locally manufactured ones including Yoyo Bitters.
The proliferation of branded alcoholic bitters could be traced to 2007 when Alomo Bitters made incursions into the Nigerian market. It blazed the trail in the consumption of alcoholic herbal liquor which spreaded like wide fire among consumers, and in no time, the ‘Bitters’ market witnessed a boom. In a bid to make brisk money, however, quacks soon moved in to reap from the upsurge in demand, and started production of fake and adulterated brands of bitters. Many of these fake herbal alcoholic brands are not only crudely packaged, but the herbal contents are said to be brewed in dingy rooms, with untreated water and the mixing is done with bathing buckets and dirty equipment.
Experts say the unhygienic nature of these unlicensed locally produced bitters, exposes unsuspecting consumers to risks of suffering from diseases and even death.
No one knows how much of the legitimate herbal alcohol industry in Nigeria has been eaten into by activities of these quacks, but industry figures suggest their adverse effects are significant. According Mr Kenneth Chiadinaizu Obalum, M.D of Goko Herbs West Africa Ltd, makers of Goko Cleanser Herbal Mixture and Heritage Alcoholic Bitters, only 30 per cent of the bitters in the Nigerian market are produced under strict hygienic standards. “The economy is so hard in the country today. So people are seeking for means to make quick money. Today anyone can wake up, and decide to start producing any herbal concoction inside his room or at his backyard, because he has seen that the alcoholic bitters market is a very lucrative venture. And to make brisk money he would opt to cut corners, use inferior materials to produce herbal bitters, push these into the market and sell at cheap rate to consumers.”
Dangers of fake bitters
Aside the unhygienic conditions under which some of these fake herbals are produced, many of them contain potentially dangerous chemicals. Certified herbal alcoholic drinks are made with ethanol – alcohol that’s safe to drink in moderation. But the quacks, in a bid to maximize profit, use other cheaper types of alcohol which can have serious adverse effects on human health. “Commonly used substitutes for ethanol include industrial chemicals used in cleaning fluids, nail polish remover and automobile screen wash, as well as methanol and isopropanol. These other types of alcohol can produce similar effects to ethanol in terms of making you feel tipsy. But they are also potentially very dangerous,” says Doctor Charles Odionye of iWell Medical Consult.
Last year over 20 persons died at Ode-Irele, in Ondo State, and also Port Harcourt, in Rivers State. Traditionalists in the Ondo community were quick to attribute the deaths to the wrath of the gods. However, thereafter, due analysis by toxicologists confirmed that they died after consuming fake alcohol very high in methanol. “Methanol, a substance which can be used in fake brewing, may cause permanent blindness. Drinking alcohol containing these chemicals can cause nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, drowsiness and dizziness. It can also lead to kidney or liver problems and even coma. This is why we medical practitioners urge individuals to stay away from alcohol or to drink in moderation,” says a medical scientist.
How to spot the fake products
Many consumers of alcoholic bitters find it difficult to spot the bad ones from the good brands. However, there are still easy and useful ways to identify inferior alcoholic bitters. According, Mr Obalum, people need to remember ‘the 4 Ps’ when buying any herbal liquor to drink; these are: Place, Price, Packaging and Product.
Place: Make sure you buy from a reputable supermarket, off licence or shop.
Price: If a deal looks too good to be true, it most probably is.
Packaging: Look out for: One, poor quality labelling, including things like spelling mistakes. Two, properly sealed caps. If the seal is broken, don’t drink it. Even if it is not illegal, it could have been tampered with. And three, fake bar codes. If you have an app on your mobile that scans bar codes, scan it and see if it’s listed as the correct product.
Product: Look out for fake versions of well-known brands and be wary of unusual brand names you haven’t seen before. If any alcohol tastes or smells bad, don’t drink it.
“Many fakers of herbal liquor are not thorough in packaging their bitters. They just go to the market, buy crude-looking empty containers, print a label, pour their concoction into these containers and then bring them to sell to consumers in the market. So people should be very careful and scrutinise the bitters they take because many of them could be poison in disguise,” advised Obalum.
‘Beware of alcohol generally’- Medical experts warn
Generally, herbal medicines are believed to be mild, efficacious and not having much side effects. This belief coupled with its lower costs as compared with conventional orthodox medications is a major reason for the popular patronage of herbal medicinal products in Nigeria. Medical experts are unequivocal on the efficacy of ‘Bitters’. They have agreed, after thorough research discovered, that ‘Bitters’ as a drink contains lots of antioxidants that helps build the body’s immune system. However, medical practitioners have refused to endorse the mixture of bitters with alcohol.
“There hasn’t been a lot of research on alcoholic bitters here in Nigeria; because alcohol is not good at all”, said Dr. Odionye. “Chronic intake of alcohol can lead to addiction which can degenerate into frustration, depression and Alzheimer. Alcohol is also linked with liver and kidney failure, hypertension and diabetes. We doctors don’t encourage intake of alcoholic bitters, because many of them with alcoholic contents of up to over 25 per cent and 32 per cent are way above the WHO recommended dosage of alcohol consumption.”
Also another expert, Ben Oki, a pharmacist, also agreed that despite the importance of herbal medicines, they can cause severe toxicity or complications and even death. He contended that although some of the bitters were made from natural herbs, they could damage the body system.
According to Mr Oki, most of the local bitters are not safe as their components or constituents are not known because they did not pass through pharmaceutical test. “people consume these bitters, especially the ones that are not registered, thereby exposing their kidneys to potential damage. I advise people to always patronise orthodox medicine rather than roadside herbal liquor,” he said.