World No Tobacco Day was observed in the country last week.
Among the events that day, the Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority received a meritorious certificate from the World Health Organisation for their clear vision and outstanding contributions towards combatting tobacco use.
The health ministry launched a toll free counselling line for people attempting to quit their addiction to tobacco. This could have been done years earlier, but better late than never.
It’s been six years since the Tobacco Control Act came into force.
Between 2010-2013, use of tobacco in fact increased among the youth.
According to the Global Youth Tobacco survey 2013, prevalence of tobacco use among boys in Bhutan was 39 percent, and 23.2 percent for girls.
Whether this situation has changed is not known. We need more studies to find if the Act and rules are in fact reducing tobacco use in the country.
Because going by the number of seizures occurring every month, the black market is still thriving. It can still be observed that many people are still smoking and chewing tobacco. It is also safe to surmise that the majority of them are not going down to Phuentsholing to legally purchase their tobacco products from across the border.
We see our narcotics officers go on periodic inspections. Fines are levied. Warnings are issued. For a while, the Act is strictly enforced.
And then it all dies down again.
While changing habits, especially one that some strongly feel is their right to exercise, is a huge challenge in itself, one of the reasons why tobacco consumption in Bhutan continues is the lack of a sustained enforcement campaign. If selling or purchasing tobacco products, or smoking and chewing tobacco, is not a persistent difficulty with constant hurdles, then such an activity will continue.
The challenge is clearly sustained enforcement possibly because of a lack of human resources or budget.
Therefore, there is a need to refocus the campaign on counselling and awareness. The helpline should have been in place years ago.
Our campaign to discourage the youth from using tobacco needs strengthening at the media level. There is a need to counter the tobacco placements in the films we watch.
We also need more school and community programmes to change the perception that it is “cool” to smoke.
We can do this by informing youth what tobacco, or for that matter, any addiction indicates: lack of skills to resist influence, lack of support from parents, low levels of academic achievements, low self-esteem, among others. Perhaps, then by associating the habit with these aspects, more youth would not only not use tobacco but also be the agents that discourage and help their friends who do so.