The Dangers of the Unregulated ‘Bitters’ Industry

'Tosin Adeoti
3 min readJun 24, 2021
Image Source: Guardian Newspaper, Nigeria

Again, I witnessed another heart-wrenching sight of an ‘educated’ man gulping one of these bitter drinks sold in used water bottles.

Some four years ago, my newsfeed was agog with stories of a particular Bitters which they said could cure all manner of illnesses ranging from low libido to arthritis to diabetes to malaria to typhoid to fibroid to gonorrhea to staphylococcus to high blood pressure to menstrual disorder. They even said it could detoxify the body, never mind there is no such thing in medicine. It’s disorienting how many people believe that a NAFDAC number is all it takes ingest anything.

November 2015, the Guardian newspaper reported the death of a 35 year-old Chukwudi Okoye who died after bleeding through the mouth and nose. Chukwudi who got married in April 2015 died after gulping two cans of one of the herbal bitters around here. It was also reported to the Guardian, several other deaths all as a result of the consumption of other types of Bitters.

The particular Bitters taken by Chukwudi was shown in the lab to contain high levels of methanol. Methanol poisoning causes neurological problems, including visual disturbances, blurred vision, blindness, nerve damage and insomnia. Ingestion of high levels of methanol often causes death.

The preponderance of these products and the unchecked advertisements of these drinks remind me of happenings in the distant past. In the 1920s, there was a certain quack American doctor. He dropped out of Harvard, and started selling fake medicine. At the time, radioactivity was one of the raves of the scientific world, but not fully understood.

This doctor, William J. A. Bailey would dissolve radium salts in water, and sell the bottled mixture as “Radithor”, a drug to stimulate the endocrine system. A wealthy, popular socialite by the name Eben Byers bought it and was taking the mixture in large quantities.

Thinking the medicine was improving his health, he ingested more than 1400 bottles of the deadly mixture. Eventually his insides got very radioactive with large amounts of cancer effects. Holes began to develop in his skull and jaw and he developed abscess in his brain. He died of the cancers, painfully, in 1932.

Shockingly, that fake doctor (William Bailey) was never arrested or convicted. He continued selling radioactive products. He eventually died of bladder cancer himself in 1947.

(As an aside, there is no such thing as the Nigerian exceptionalism. Anything and everything that has happened and is happening in Nigeria has been observed in the ‘dark’ ages of the American, British, Chinese or… history. I have observed that those who say something is unique to Nigeria are only showing the limits of their knowledge. And there is no excuse really. All these can be found in books.)

As I explained to this ‘educated’ man the harmful effects of ingesting such unregulated herbal drinks which he claimed gives him vigour at night as well as aid his indigestion, he shrugged off my admonition with the words,

“Something must kill a man.”

Upon leaving him, my mind was at peace.