Tobacco: If one must see how Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency’s (BNCA) random inspection is scaring the soul out of smokers, the best place to go is where automobile workshops are at Olakha, Thimphu. Smokers scan around to make sure there are inspectors lurking about and dash out swiftly for a quick drag.

But the thing is that no one can be certain who’s inspector and who’s not. The guy standing next to you, casually watching things roll on by, could very well be a narcotics spy. There is no way of knowing. And if you are caught smoking there, you will be slapped a fine of Nu 500 on the spot. This has left smokers really frustrated.

BNCA has been carrying out surprise checking in and around city pockets. Recently, the agency nabbed more than 20 smokers in the town and collected upwards of Nu 40,000 total fine.  Those found selling cigarettes are fined Nu 10,000. Smokers have to pay penalty of Nu 500.

Phuntsho Wangdi, director general of BNCA, said that fines are imposed according to Tobacco Control Act of Bhutan and rules and regulations pertaining to trade and consumption tobacco products. The reason for levying heavy penalty from business owners is because they are responsible for maintaining the public space where his or her business is.

But this has given rise to a whole new set of problems.

“Implementation of fines is carried out as per the Law ratified by the Parliament,” said Phuntsho Wangdi. “If people act responsibly and comply with the provisions of the Law, there should not be any problem.”

Phub Zam, 27, owner of the Club Zomsa, was recently imposed Nu 10, 000 fine when one of her customers was caught smoking outside the club.

“We hardly get Nu 10, 000 in a day. And when we are busy with our customers inside, it is difficult to monitor what is happening outside,” said Phub Zam. “This is really unfair.”

Tshering, 55, owner of Lungta Gonphel Drayang, said that angry customers do not cooperate when they are told not smoke in and around the drayang. “They become abusive and often dangerous. But we must also think about our business. We are faced with a difficult dilemma.”

Club Zomsa is located just by the road at Hongkong market in Thimphu. Phub Zam said that even if someone who is not her customer smokes near her club she will be liable to pay a hefty penalty. “This is going to ruin by business entire.”

Norbu, who owns a karaoke, said that he lets his customers smoke in a small spare room he’s got. But BNCA officials told him that he cannot let that happen because the room does not have ventilator.

A mechanic with one of the workshops in Olakha, who recently had to pay a fine of Nu 500, said that the authorities wouldn’t dare slap penalty on high-ranking officials even if they are found smoking in the open. He wasn’t even smoking when he was handed a receipt recently. “I had a cigarette tucked up above my left ear and they had me pay the fine. That’s stupid.”

Lekey Dorji, chairperson of the Legislative Committee of National Assembly, said that ignorance of law is not an excuse to avoid penalties. Law enforcing agencies, he added, must impose penalties if the Law must succeed.

Phuntsho Wangdi said that the law of the land will apply to all irrespective of nationality. Teams of inspectors have also visited government offices and fined the defaulters.

While sudden inspections have caused problems for many, there are supports from certain quarters of the society. Nowhere is this more evident than at the workshops in Olakha.

A workshop owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said that such inspections should happen frequently. “We have highly flammable materials here. A spark could lead to dangerous consequences. But then, ours is a business entity and we must allow certain laxity.”

“Public areas are well defined in the Act,” said Phuntsho Wangdi. “People have the freedom to smoke in private areas but not in the open.”

Rules may endure and measures more employed to stop people from smoking in the public places, but it is the structure of penalty that people are not able to comprehend. Why must smoker pay only Nu 500 when he or she is the main defaulter?

“There is a need to revise the fine structure to be fair to all,” said Sangay Tshering, a restaurant owner.

Tashi Tobgay

Tashi Tobgay is an intern with Kuensel