Unlike what many expected, there was no heated debate on the government’s submission to amend the Tobacco Control Act. Those who spoke, supported the submission unanimously, which the National Assembly’s Legislative Committee will relook and submit to the Assembly tomorrow.

From the brief discussions, the Tobacco Amendment Bill 2021, it seems, will sail through easily. Together with the Bill, submitted as an urgent Bill, the Tax Bill 2021 proposes to not tax tobacco products imported in the country. In other words, tobacco will be available and affordable, both for personal consumption and commercial purposes.

After more than a decade, the controversial Act is up for amendment.  The Act has been debated and amended in the past. Repealing the sections proposed means we are going back to what we were before 2010. There is an urgency to amend the Act and there is wisdom in the government’s submission in the current situation. Smuggling of tobacco products, it is now confirmed, is the biggest risk in our fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Records with the police show that smuggling had been rampant after tobacco became lucrative because of the ban and then the shortage after the border closure. In less than six months, police seized Nu 5.9 million worth of tobacco products this year. This is what law enforcement agencies seized. Millions worth of tobacco products could have slipped inside the country. This is evident from the non-stop supply in the illicit market.

The  issue is not about revenue leakage. It is about the security of a country when fighting an invisible enemy. While many crib about the cost of tobacco, it is the risk associated with the goods that is smuggled across the border, bringing along with it the virus. The border is sealed and guarded from Sibsoo to Jomotshangkha. But the greed for money from the lucrative tobacco smuggling is jeopardising the efforts put in.

The government risked the wrath of those against tobacco for health, social and spiritual reasoning when they let the Duty Free Corporation sell tobacco. It was a good decision, but it couldn’t live up to the expectation of curtailing smuggling. While there were not many outlets, the SOE was selling spurious goods letting the illicit trade thrive. It also became the source of tobacco in the black market.

The Tobacco Act didn’t achieve its purpose. If tobacco was available, albeit at a higher price, it didn’t discourage people from abusing tobacco. A study in 2013 found out that Bhutan had the highest prevalence of tobacco users among students, both at the regional and global level. In three years since the legislation, use of tobacco products increased by about 12 percent.

The Tobacco Act was passed without the wisdom of hindsight. Not many of us would have guessed that it would lead to a thriving illicit trade that it is now or the potential source of Coronavirus.  Legislation will have to change with time and priorities. The proposal is not to do away with the Act altogether. There has been success in inducing behavioural change. Smoking in public space, for instance, is a thing of the past.

What we could do is look for alternatives to discourage tobacco abuse. After the tobacco Act, we have neglected advocacy. We should now enhance advocacy programmes to  change people’s behaviour to wean them away from dependence on tobacco.  Cessation programmes to reduce demand for tobacco and providing counselling services are what we need to focus on.

When Covid-19 is conquered, we could also go back to and revisit the Tobacco Control Act.