22 January 2020
Afraid of losing out to classmates who take smart pills, many students eventually start to use such drugs, too. Photo: HKEJ
Afraid of losing out to classmates who take smart pills, many students eventually start to use such drugs, too. Photo: HKEJ

Smart pill crisis in primary schools

So-called smart pills have been popular among foreign university students, scientists and bankers in recent years. In Hong Kong, psychiatrist Hui Lung-kit said in a Facebook post that the smart pills have made their way into primary schools.

Smart pills generally refer to three kinds of drugs – Adderall, Modafinil and Ritalin — which were used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, these drugs have been found to make people become smarter.

These drugs for treating ADHD could help enhance memory and cognition, and diminish fatigue and boost alertness. More importantly, these medications could make those who take them feel more confident about themselves, according to a report from science magazine Nature.

It’s said that medical school students were among the first to discover the wonders of the smart pill. Many take these medications before exams, which enable them to stay up all night and quickly memorize complicated medical terms.

Soon, smart pills spread to other college students and then to high-school students. The New York Times has a report on the rising use of smart drugs by American high school students in order to keep up with academic demands and get into Ivy League universities.

These drugs have also become popular with professionals in scientific research and investment banking. A BBC report said that certain US and UK troops were given Modafinil to keep them awake for 48 hours.

There are more than two million people in Germany who have taken smart pills to help them perform better in academics or work, and 800,000 of them are long-time users, according to a study by Germany’s Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices. A Nature survey also found them to be widely used.

As a result, various pharmaceutical companies are stepping up research and promotion of these smart pills.

For example, Europe’s largest drugmaker, Novartis, reported US$490 million sales revenue from Ritalin in 2014, one of its best-selling drugs. And Modafinil has annual sales of nearly US$1 billion in the US.

The situation in Hong Kong is quite different. Smart pill abuse has been found to be quite common among primary schoolchildren.

Hui, a member of the Committee on Home-school Cooperation, said that he had many patients who are in primary school and are suffering from problems related to excessive use of ADHD drugs.

“In elite schools, there are more students taking these drugs. In some schools, half of the class are taking these drugs. And parents often swap smart pill information through WhatsApp and BK [another social platform targeted at parents],” he said.

However, the positive effects of smart drugs are temporary, and they can result in long-lasting negative symptoms.

Side effects may include insomnia, anxiety, sleeping disorder, headaches, restlessness, cardiac arrhythmia, irritability, aggressive behavior and psychosis. There may also be a risk of addiction.

US cases show some college students have to increase the dosage from several pills to several dozen pills later to stay calm. And these drugs could be even more harmful to primary students.

In fact, smart drugs like Ritalin have been listed as dangerous drugs in Hong Kong and are only available through doctor’s prescription.

However, Hui said that some teachers would push parents to get these drugs from doctors.

It’s really sad that primary school students have to take these smart drugs to cope with mounting pressure.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 26

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist