Younten Tshedup 

Tshering (name changed) runs from one shop to another along Norzin Lam in Thimphu. Desperate, he is comparing the price of cigarettes.

With the border gates closed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, import of any non-essential commodity has become difficult. However, tobacco products continue to be available in the market, despite the strict ban imposed.

Even before the pandemic and closure of the border entry points, tobacco products were readily available.

However, what has changed is the exorbitant rate charged on tobacco. A stick of Wills Navy Cut now costs anywhere between Nu 40-50 in Thimphu which means a packet costs Nu 400 to Nu 500. A double packet (20 sticks) Wills Classic costs Nu 1,000.

Prior to the pandemic, a packet of Wills Navy Cut cigarettes was sold around Nu 120 to Nu 150 in Thimphu.

Where is the tobacco coming from? 

Police have apprehended many attempting to smuggle in tobacco products in the border areas. Despite the multiple arrests and seizure, there seems to be no shortage of tobacco products in the capital.

Sources told Kuensel that due to the lockdown in India and closure of entry points, the tobacco products in circulation could be those that are confiscated by authorities.

“We have heard that there are a few shops that sell cigarettes legally. These cigarettes are those seized by authorities and instead of burning them, they are now allowed to sell given the shortage,” according to a source.

However, officials from the Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority (BNCA) denied the allegations on the assumed legal sale of tobacco.

Officials said that the sale of tobacco products in Bhutan is prohibited by law and those available in the market are illegal.

An official explained that any controlled substances including tobacco products that are confiscated by authority are all incinerated (burned). He said that according to the standard operating procedure (SOP), after the products are seized they are stored in the authority’s warehouse and remain locked.

A committee that includes all the stakeholders including police, customs and BNCA officials oversees the disposal. Disposals are carried out once there is an adequate amount collected at the warehouse. Officials said that products are not immediately disposed of as some of them serve as evidence of the crime and have to await the judgment from the court.

BNCA officials said that regular surveillance to check for open smoking is underway across the country.

Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said, “Selling of tobacco is banned in Bhutan by Act and it is impossible for the government to give any permission for the legal sale of tobacco.”

Lyonpo said that the illegal sale of tobacco has been going on for a while and that the government is aware of it. “In recent times there have been increased illegal activities and we are trying our best to prevent any illegal smuggling mainly because of Covid-19.”

He said that more than tobacco, the priority is to prevent the spread of Covid-19 through such illegal activities. “We understand the problem and our legislative committee chairperson is also well informed on this. We will see how we can amend the law to make it more practical.”

Meanwhile, those who sell tobacco said that there is a shortage of supply, which is why the cost has escalated. “People who need it will buy it anyway, whether the rate is Nu 100 or Nu 1,000. Same people buy at the same frequency.”

However, some buyers said that their suppliers do not reveal how they get the consignments. “As long as we get what we need, we don’t dig for details.”