Why It Matters

Downside of 'smart drugs'

From undergraduates to secondary school students, young people in Singapore are using "smart drugs" to help with cramming.

More students, including some as young as 16, are taking these cognitive enhancers, say observers. And they are finding it easier to obtain such drugs.

Perhaps it is the academic pressure students face, pushing them to consider short cuts to gain an edge over their peers.

Such drugs - used to treat disorders such as excessive daytime sleepiness or conditions like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder - are touted to boost concentration, decision-making and memory power in healthy people.

One local website selling modafinil, used to treat people with narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, specifically targets Singapore students "who are mercilessly subjected to an intense education curriculum". The seller said his youngest buyer is in Secondary 4.

But this trend did not take place overnight. For many years, students, and even their parents, have been doing all they can to boost performance during major examinations, from brewing special soups to boiling ginkgo nut desserts.

Is the need for this extra help so ingrained that students are willing to risk side effects caused by the drugs, including heart problems, severe rashes, headaches, irritability, difficulty in breathing and insomnia?Addiction is also a real problem and the buying and selling of such drugs may be illegal.

But sellers are becoming more brazen. Besides peddling them on online platforms and messaging services, some offer free samples, delivery services and even back-to-school promotions.

Admittedly, there is no easy solution to this problem. The authorities need to take a tougher line on sellers who supply these drugs before it gets out of control, and spare no effort in educating young people on the consequences of misusing the drugs.

Parents and schools too can play their part by focusing less on academic grades, and assuring students that their best is good enough.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline 'Downside of 'smart drugs''. Print Edition | Subscribe