Kenya restricts sale of medicines with codeine

Wednesday January 10 2018

A client buys medicine at a pharmacy in central Meru, Kenya.

A client buys medicine at a pharmacy in central Meru, Kenya. The country has restricted the sale of medicines containing codeine in an effort to curb abuse and addiction. PHOTO | PHOEBE OKALL | NMG 

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Kenya has restricted the sale of medicines containing codeine in an effort to curb abuse and addiction.

The Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) said the medication will only be sold to persons with a doctor's chit.

“All prescribers and dispensers should not offer for sale any medicine that contains codeine without a valid prescription from a duly registered medical practitioner,” said PPB registrar Dr Fred Siyoi.

The board also gave manufacturers a six-month ultimatum to change packages of medicines with codeine to include clear and prominently positioned warnings on the labels, summary product characteristics and patient information leaflets about the risk of addiction and importance of not taking them for more than three days.

Codeine is an opiate drug used to treat mild to moderate severe pain. It also used as a cough suppressant.

The board said codeine is a controlled substance that could no longer be sold over the counter.

Though Dr Siyoi did not list the medicines that will now require prescriptions, he said the drugs are being abused and used for recreational purposes.

“We have received a lot of complaints about abuse of these drugs and anything that the government feels is becoming a risk to the public has to be restricted,” he said.

Controlled use

Pure codeine is mostly prescribed as a painkiller and is classified as a controlled substance in many countries. Due to the restriction, users look for the drug elsewhere with cough syrups becoming a favourite. They usually mix it with soda or alcohol.

Some of the most common cough syrups containing codeine are Benylin, Coscof C and Actifed. Betapyn tablets, used to treat headaches, toothache and joint pain also contain codeine and are often sold over-the-counter.

Misuse of the drugs has been reported in various countries around the world. A recent study shows nearly four million Americans older than 12 abuse prescription pain relievers, including codeine.

In Kenya, health data estimates that about 90 people die from an opioid overdose (including codeine) annually.

The board warned pharmacists from refilling the drugs containing codeine if buyers failed to produce a prescription.


To minimise the risk of overuse and addiction the agency said it has reclassified medicines that contain codeine as prescription-only-medicine from pharmacy-only-medicines.

Prescriptions will only be considered if it contains the patient’s details and the medical practitioner's details including registration number and signature made in indelible ink.


The classification of codeine as an opiate drug puts it in the same class of substances as morphine and heroin.

Though less potent than the two, it poses similar risks of abuse, addiction and overdose.

A codeine overdose incident can be life-threatening if immediate medical attention is not given.