Says should not use Covid-19 as an excuse

Younten Tshedup 

The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has challenged the government’s decision to open tobacco outlets in the country managed by the Bhutan Duty Free Limited.

Accusing the government of transgressing clauses of the Tobacco Control Act 2010, the party has questioned the legality of the recent decision that allows the sale of tobacco through tobacco outlets in the country.

In a press release issued by PDP, the party states that trampling over the Tobacco Control Act, the DNT government has violated Article 20, section 8 of the Constitution that prohibits the executive from modifying, varying and superseding any provisions of the law made by Parliament or a law in force.

“The rule of law, which forms the heart of democracy should not be allowed to be transgressed easily by elected governments,” states the press release.

PDP has called on the government to explain to the country why the act of selling tobacco products by the government’s sales outlet is not a violation of the Tobacco Act.

The government recently allowed Bhutan Duty Free Limited to be the main vendors of tobacco products in the country. The first tobacco outlet was opened in Phuentsholing on August 1. There is a similar outlet in Thimphu.

The decision was in response to the increasing cases of illegal trade of tobacco products along the border and to curb the illegal movement of people (smuggling) across borders in light of the pandemic.

Earlier, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering had said that the temporary decision made to address the need of the hour was socially and Covid-19-point-of-view correct. “We are not trying to be legally correct here.”

Lyonchhen had also explained that Bhutan had not banned the import of tobacco products in the country. Only the sale of tobacco products is banned, he added.

Under the current situation, Lyonchhen said that with people restricted from going out of the country, theoretically, a smoker couldn’t get a packet of cigarettes in the country. Therefore, to address the issue, he said that the tobacco outlets should be assumed as a foreign source from where individuals are allowed to buy tobacco products of specified quantity by law.

However, PDP holds that the government cannot be allowed to hide under the guise of the need of certain sections of the society and violate an existing law. “Such precedence will pave way for despotic governments in the future that would transgress legislation simply riding over the ‘popular demands’ of a section of the population.”

While the party recognises the unprecedented challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, PDP stated that it should not allow an easy excuse for the government to violate laws and regulations in place in the shadow of Covid-19.

PDP stated that more than anybody else, it was necessary for the government to explore every other means before ‘launching an assault on the law’. “The government must not only uphold rule of law but must be seen to be an ardent upholder of the laws.”

The party said that instead of giving into popular demands, the government should have called for a special session of the Parliament to amend the Act if the government felt the urgency.

Article 10, section 12 of the Constitution states that the speaker and the chairperson shall convene an extraordinary sitting of Parliament on the command of the Druk Gyalpo if the exigencies of the situation so demand.

“In transgressing the law, the government loses its moral authority to hold individual citizens and organisations to be law abiding which is at the heart of democracy,” states the press release. “We are deeply concerned that this action of the government will establish a precedent with serious ramification on how legislations are looked upon by future governments and impair the credibility of the elected governments.”

As of yesterday, there was no response from the government. However, during a recent meeting with the parliamentarians, Lyonchhen said that convening an emergency Parliament session did not guarantee amendment of the Tobacco Act.

On the other hand, the risk of importation of infection (Covid-19) through illegal border crossing (smuggling of tobacco products) was imminent. The Prime Minister said that tobacco smuggling was one of the major illegal activities along the border with more than 30 individuals apprehended daily.

PDP also called upon the Opposition party to discharge its constitutional duties and to hold the government accountable and prevent it from transgressing the law. 

It stated that the Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority as the custodian of the Tobacco Act to invoke its mandated duties to enforce the provisions of the Act and engage with the government to revert or rectify any misdoing of the government immediately. 

The party also called upon the media houses as the society’s ‘watch dog’ to continue questioning the government on the legality of its recent actions. 

“We call upon the National Council as the house of review to hold the government accountable for its illegal act of selling tobacco.”              

Meanwhile, the ‘tobacco quota outlet’ in Thimphu sold products worth Nu 589,420 on the opening day on August 3. More than 290 consumers visited the lone outlet.

The outlet ran out of chewing tobacco by noon yesterday.