The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has defended the government’s decision to allow the duty free outlets to sell tobacco products during the pandemic. The OAG argues that governments issuing executive orders to address exigencies during a pandemic cannot be construed as violations of laws. 

It is not sure if critics of the decision are convinced. The next step, it seems, is moving the court.

Even as the debate continues, outlets in Thimphu and Phuentsholing are doing a brisk business with one making about Nu 0.6 million on the opening day. Those aware of the outlets are feeling relieved as there is access to tobacco at a cheaper rate.

However, the government’s decision would be unfair if it delays opening more outlets, especially in the interiors. Nearly a week after the first outlet opened in Phuentsholing and another one in Thimphu, not many are aware of the outlets. There are none in others dzongkhags. People are still resorting to the black market, which has not been affected at all.

If the decision was to get rid of the black market and curb the illegal movement of people across the border, there has to be more outlets and soon. A decision has been made. It seems rational as tobacco smugglers are seen as the potential source of a community transmission. It should not be another case of a good idea poorly implemented.

The bigger risk is creating another black market where people buy from outlets in Thimphu and Phuentsholing and sell it at a higher price to other dzongkhags. As of Wednesday, some tobacco products were already out of stock in the outlet in Thimphu. The group that appreciated the government’s decision would start losing confidence if they have to resort to the black market after all the controversy.

Outlets should strictly stick to the maximum quantity prescribed and start rationing if lockdown in neighbouring Jaigaon is affecting replenishing stock. The idea is to make tobacco available and discourage breaching border protocols. A few out of stock outlets are not worth the risk the government took.

Meanwhile, the OAG has made it clear the decision is an interim measure. Given the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, it provides the perfect opportunity to our legislators to relook into the Tobacco Control Act.  The Act while criticised for not being practical has brought some good changes. Smoking in public areas has reduced to a large extent. People think twice when they want to light up at public institutions, public places that include offices and restaurants, in all modes of transport, and at places where other people will be affected.

Tobacco is still bad. It is bad for health and is against our religion. We can surmise that a lot of people would have kicked the habit of smoking or chewing either for health or spiritual reasons. Ultimately, awareness and education seems to be the only answer. Tobacco cessation programmes could be stepped up, for instance, while we still debate the decision.