Butanese representing the country at the World Health Organisation’s regional meeting that called for stringent action against tobacco should be gleaming with pride.
A declaration was adopted to impose equal taxes on all tobacco products, enforcing the ban on tobacco advertisements, pictorial warnings on cigarette packs, and implementing a 100 percent ban on public smoking.
Such restrictions covering many aspects of the WHO tobacco-control frameworks are already in place, recognising the health hazards and the staunch religious piety.
In fact, we banned the sale of tobacco as early as 2004, making us the first country in the world to snuff out cigarettes. But as stats were shared at the conference, we have to take our records with a pinch of salt.
After Timor-Leste, the host country that has one of the highest tobacco consumptions in the world, Bhutan is second with 30 percent, a massive 10 percent behind Nepal and Indonesia at 20 percent where tobacco is not banned.
The per capita could be because of our smaller population compared with Nepal and Indonesia, but even otherwise, abuse of tobacco is rampant with or without legal backing. We have a tobacco control Act that was amended twice to iron out difficulties in implementing it.
What is more disturbing is that the 30 percent is among youth between the ages of 13 to 15 years. The 200 percent tax on tobacco products should have made tobacco more inaccessible to the youth. However, it has not. If cigarettes have become expensive, smokeless tobacco like chewing tobacco and snuff continue to be used abundantly.
Sale of tobacco is officially banned in the country. It appears that only selling openly is banned because tobacco is available everywhere. Despite the occasional crackdowns, there are no serious measures to come down hard on the black market that is thriving as tobacco has become more profitable after the ban.
More than a decade after we first banned the sale of tobacco, there is no indication whether the ban is working, which was to discourage people from picking up the habit.
Going by the stats, it has not.
One in five out of 1,378 students surveyed smoked a tobacco product.
Having signed the declaration, the health minister and his team will have to look for ways and means to make the tobacco legislation work. There could be another round of debate if measures to implement the declaration are proposed.
However, the advantage is that we know all the weaknesses in finding an appropriate solution.
When the tobacco control bill was discussed, many felt that a lot of responsibilities should rest on health ministry. Parents and teachers too. Ironically, both didn’t work. Our figures are higher than countries that are not even members of the framework convention on tobacco control (FCTC).
Maybe, programmes calling for cessation and to help those wanting to quit could work as a solution for a start.