This week, the National Assembly finally killed the Tobacco Control Act (TCA), the most controversial law in the country.

Repealing the heart of this law , including taxes on tobacco products in the name of possible risks of spread of coronavirus across the border without exploring better alternatives including temporary suspension of this law till the end of pandemic, and without any concrete preventive measures in place to reduce consumption shows how our poorly informed our people’s representatives on government’s preparation of reduction of tobacco consumption in the country. 

The argument of increasing smuggling across the border needs to be taken with a pinch of salt since we have rapidly enhanced our border surveillance security system when the pandemic hit Bhutan possibly leading to more smugglers being caught.

Our legislature remained a spectator when the government allowed duty-free outlets and other platforms across the country violating several provisions of the TCA and possibly contravening the constitution.  Our legislature also failed to exercise its oversight functions when the government enforced criminal sanctions on common people when they were found violating the law and the government itself continues to import, distribute, and supply tobacco products through duty-free outlets without facing any legal consequences.

Another, noteworthy, about this amendment is the Minister of Ministry of Economic Affairs introducing the Amendment Bill instead of the health minister who is also chairman of the Tobacco Control Board, probably to generate some psychological impact on legislatures to forget the health issues rather concentrate on repealing the provisions without much obstruction. 

One of the primary reasons for enacting this law was because Bhutan ratified the Frame Convention on Tobacco Control as early as 2004. There may be consequences to the country since WHO funded numerous activities spending substantial fund to implement this law. The argument of not allowing persons who are below 18 years of age from buying tobacco is no different from young people getting drunk in the country.

While any ban or harsh punishment needs proper assessment, legalizing and liberalizing the entire tobacco business and consumption when the nation is led by health experts is nothing short of the darker side of being politicians.

This amendment will undermine the fundamental rights of non-smokers or passive smokers and add to the burden on our health expenditure.  While the proponents of the amendment of this law look promising to reduce consumption, we must note that even after more than a decade since this law was enacted Bhutan still lack basic health facilities where the demand reduction measures such as counselling or others like nicotine replacement therapy products to quit tobacco use. 

WHO says that “tobacco is recognised as the leading cause of death, illness and impoverishment” with estimated deaths of more than 8 million each year globally mostly in the low- and middle-income countries. And taxation is recognized as one of the most effective measures in the reduction of tobacco consumption as high as 5 percent in the low- and middle-income countries. Our legislature nearly scrapped the entire tax on tobacco products. Spiritually, His Holiness issued a Kasho pointing out that it is against the fundamental Buddhist principles and values. How will the amendment respond to these scientific facts and spiritual belief?

Easy availability with affordable price will only encourage thousands of Bhutanese especially our youth to tobacco addiction is not far.   

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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