The Rise (and Rise) of Dodgy ‘Viagra’-Laced Energy Drinks

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

Why you should care

Ugandans are turning to these unregulated beverages, sometimes dangerously so, to improve their sex lives.  

Stanley Mugisa consumed what he thought was a regular energy drink. But 20 minutes later, he had an unwanted erection that lasted three hours. The Kampala-based fruits businessman kept sweating, got a headache and ended up with high blood pressure for which he’s now taking treatment.

Mugisa isn’t alone. An industry of energy drinks laced with sildenafil citrate — the chemical composition best known by the brand name Viagra — is rapidly spreading in East and Southern Africa, with Uganda as ground zero. Faced with growing complaints of abnormal erections after taking energy drinks, Ugandan authorities are now testing these drinks and shutting down some factories where they’re being manufactured without certification. But the crackdown has been half-hearted and has only increased the focus on drinks that are seen by many men as a cheaper alternative to Viagra — a pill costs $4, while the drink costs roughly $1.50.

In January, the Ugandan government banned Natural Power SX, a drink that originated in Zambia, after tests confirmed it contained sildenafil citrate, says Godwin Muhwezi, spokesperson for the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS). But since then, a flood of similar new energy drinks like Kokolioko, Kalaso, Embaluka, Omola,Vigour Men Plus, Mubalula, Kabaya, Kapiso, Mpiso and Energy Y emerged in Uganda. Energy drinks, which constituted 3 percent of Uganda’s bottled drinks market just a year ago, now command 7 percent market share, according to Ken Katula, the trade ministry supervisor in Kampala.

It is because it does what they want that they buy it.

Simon Guliwo, Kabaya energy drink

But Uganda has yet to formally ban these other new drinks, relying only on factory checks, even as Malawi and Zambia — which too have grappled with Viagra-infused drinks — have declared them illegal. Instead, different Ugandan agencies are pointing fingers at each other. That’s sparking fears that these drinks, manufactured in Uganda — a key regional transit route — could soon find their way back into countries that have banned them, and to other nations like South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Tanzania.

Critics also blame Uganda’s high levels of corruption — the country ranks 160 in the Transparency International index, below Zambia (105) and Malawi (120) — for its failure to crack down on these drinks as its neighbors have. And the country’s low literacy rate — at 71 percent, the lowest in the region — and newspaper penetration — the largest newspaper sells only 30,000 copies — makes public awareness a greater challenge for Uganda than for other nations.

“We depend on the public to report to us such bad drinks,” says Muhwezi. “But they do not report.”

To be sure, Uganda isn’t the first country to encounter such drinks. Energy drinks and untested herbal drinks that led to erections were discovered in Nigeria in 2014, but authorities there quickly clamped down on them. In the U.S., performance-enhancing pills for athletes have in some cases been found to lead to erections. But those instances have been rare.

In Uganda, on the other hand, authorities banned Zambia-made NaturalPower SX but not the locally manufactured copycats that have come up since January, points out Kampala-based human rights activist Henry Nkayi. The ministry of trade says the health ministry is responsible for taking action — a charge the health ministry throws back at the trade ministry. The Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), which determines whether a product is fit for the market, says the National Drug Agency (NDA) that tests substances is to blame for not getting it adequate evidence to ban the drinks that have come up since the crackdown on Natural Power SX. And the NDA holds the UNBS responsible.

“We have no power to regulate energy drinks — that is done by UNBS,” says Fredrick Sekyana, public relations officer of the NDA. “We are aware that there are some unscrupulous people who sell drinks they claim to be containing medicine to cure various diseases but laced with Viagra. We have arrested some of them.” Sekyana confirms that tests have shown that these drinks lead to an increased heart rate, headaches and perspiration, and are particularly dangerous for those with pulmonary conditions. Most of the drinks cater to men, but authorities are concerned about similar effects on women.

Uganda’s State Minister of Health Saraha Opendi says that the government is advising Ugandans to avoid drinks that haven’t been certified by the standards bureau, but she acknowledges that many aren’t heeding those warnings. “They seem not to take us seriously,” she says, also conceding that the failure of different departments to work together was hampering efforts at regulating this gray industry.

But tracking down and acting against the manufacturers of these drinks isn’t easy. For one, many of them are manufacturing these drinks from makeshift factories set up in backyards. Ugandan law also permits herbal drinks without certification — an approach aimed at encouraging traditional, local drinks. Many of the “Viagra drinks” are being marketed as herbal in nature, say officials. As long as they also deliver on other health promises, authorities can’t ban these drinks — never mind that they also give you an erection. And then, there’s the challenge of scale, given how fast these drinks have spread.

“Just last week we closed a factory making an energy drink called Omulondo after realizing that it did not conform to required standards,” says Muhwezi. “But we cannot be everywhere.”

It’s a growing crisis that legislators are now flagging in Parliament. “There is need for the government to intervene,” member of Parliament Gaffa Mbwatekamwa said in the legislature in August, backed by other MPs. Minister of Trade Amelia Kyambadde responded by committing to closing “some of the factories” manufacturing uncertified energy drinks, leaving room to exempt herbal drinks.

But to Simon Guliwo, a manager at a factory of the Kabaya energy drink that is uncertified and leads to erections, any government action would be anti–free market. “It is because it does what they want that they buy it,” he says.

Ahmed Twase, 35, agrees. He uses the uncertified drink Sonsomola and says he would organize protests if the government bans it. “When I drink Sonsomola,” he says, “I become a superman in bed.”

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