A bold and practical decision

The government has risked getting bashed from all corners in taking a decision to allow the sale of tobacco in the country even with a law that says sale and distribution of tobacco is not allowed.

However, it is a bold decision and by far the most practical. Tobacco is still a problem for both health and spiritual reasons. But it has become the biggest problem in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The craze for cigarettes and Baba chewing tobacco, people are convinced, could undo the hard work led by His Majesty The King in securing our borders and all our efforts put in to prevent the country and the people from a community outbreak.

Even as we write this, His Majesty The King is in Samtse, for the eighth time in a few months to oversee preparedness. Samtse that share an open and porous border with India have become a problem. As of last week, 61 people had breached the border security protocols.  Most of them did for tobacco and drugs.

The ban on the sale of tobacco, we all know has not worked. It would be the biggest irony if a community transmission occurs because of tobacco. The risk is real. From Nganglam in the east to Samtse in the west, all those breaching border protocols are because of tobacco. Those guarding the borders have just one plea – not to cross the border illegally for the risk of contracting the disease.

Those violating protocols are not innocent villagers. They are people trying to make profits from the lucrative and thriving black market. The price of tobacco has shot through the roof and people are still buying. The price of a Baba packet with a maximum retail price of Rs 3 is sold for Nu 250 in the interiors.

Even in Phuentsholing, just across the border, the 10-gram packet is sold for not less than Nu 100.  A farmer would toil for a day, earn Nu 500 and buy a packet for Nu 200 or more. This profit margin is encouraging more to cross the border and risk themselves, the community and the country.

Let’s be honest. Tobacco was banned not really based on pragmatism, but by the anti tobacco lobby, especially from those who harboured negative views of tobacco, influenced by several interpretations of Buddhist teachings.

Let’s be honest. Even with a ban in place, everybody has access to tobacco without paying tax. Everybody – from lawmakers, to those implementing, monitoring and reporting buys from the black market. We have suppliers who cater to only the “big shots”. Big shots here include parliamentarians, Dashos, officers of the armed force and many more.

Let’s be honest. If the concern of youth, including students, smoking in bars and entertainment centres has garnered support among Bhutanese who are already worried about emerging “decadence” among a section of our youth population, it has not changed. Almost 16 years after Bhutan banned the sale of tobacco, use of tobacco is still rampant among youth. The Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) Bhutan Report, 2019, which the health minister launched last month stated that one in five students currently abuse tobacco.

Legally, the tobacco law prohibits sale of tobacco, but not the import of tobacco for self-consumption. With borders sealed and travel restricted, who is going abroad to get the tobacco from an airport duty free shop? Making the Bhutan Duty Free Limited (BDFL) and its outlets the “foreign source” will ensure everyone gets their quota without having to rely on smugglers.

If allowing BDFL to sell can stop the risk of a community transmission, channel the profit from the black market to the government and ease the burden of people, we should welcome it. We will have time to debate the moral and ethical wisdom of the decision. We cannot wait to take measures to stop a pandemic.

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