As Bhutan navigates an increasingly globalized marketplace while pursuing economic growth and achieving Gross National Happiness, striking a delicate balance between economic interest and safeguarding the fundamental right of consumers to be protected from potential harm posed by unsafe or misleadingly marketed products has become a critical issue.  The recent news surrounding products such as Johnson & Johnson’s Products including talc powder, Patanjali’s products, and the unlabelled imported goods like Thai jelly candies have highlighted the urgency of addressing these issues.

The Consumer Protection Act of Bhutan was enacted to safeguard consumer rights and promote product safety. The fundamental right to protection of life, health, and safety while consuming goods and services is enshrined in Section 4(a) of the Act.  Section 4(b) guarantees consumers the right to receive accurate, sufficient, clear, and timely information about the products and services offered, including their prices, characteristics, quality, and potential risks. This transparency is crucial for consumers to make informed decisions and avoid potential harm. The Consumer Board has a mandate to declare any goods or class of goods as prohibited if found unsafe (Section 22). Further, the Act and Rules prohibit misleading advertisements, the requirement of labelling and fair price among others.

This week, Johnson & Johnson has agreed to pay $700 million to settle an investigation by 42 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., into its marketing of baby powder and other talc-based products blamed for allegedly causing cancer. The company is facing over 50,000 lawsuits in the United States. J&J has paid out over $2 billion in settlements so far and spent roughly $4.5 billion defending and settling the talc litigation, including $178 million on a controversial “Texas Two Step” bankruptcy.  Disclosed documents suggest J&J knew for decades its talc supplies could be contaminated with asbestos, and it ramped up marketing to high-use groups like African American women, despite claiming on its website that its talc-based baby powders are asbestos-free and safe.

Similarly, last month, the Supreme Court of India’s ruling against Patanjali Ayurved for misleading advertising practices and the suspension of licenses for certain products raising numerous questions about claims made by Patanjali. Some Indian states have banned 14 Patanjali products. 

Another concern is imported goods, such as the Thai jelly candies marketed as children’s vitamins which contains appetite loss substances to be consumed by adults trying to lose weight. Clear and accurate labelling in Dzongkha and English is a legal requirement under Consumer Act and Regulations, enabling informed decision-making and fair price. These products also enjoy free pricing.  For example, Thai Jelly sold at 10 Baht (Nu.25) in Thailand market is sold at Nu.40 to 60 in Bhutan per piece.  Despite these serious concerns, these products continue to be freely available in the Bhutanese market, posing significant public health and safety risks.

The concerning cases of these products serve as a wake-up call for the government to take decisive action. The potential consequences of consuming these products, which may pose serious health risks or fail to deliver on their claims, are too grave to ignore. The Office of the Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority, the Bhutan Food and Drug Administration, and other relevant agencies must collaborate to ensure that only goods are proven safe and meet the safety standards of our requirement.  Rigorous import controls, thorough product inspections, and stringent enforcement of labelling requirements are essential to protect consumers from potential harm.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.