Supplying cigarettes during the lockdown

Smoking becomes expensive habit

Rajesh Rai  | Phuentsholing

It is a hot day in Phuentsholing. Amidst the fear of coronavirus, the otherwise bustling town wears a deserted look.

Few men, young and old, keep coming to a small shop. They are looking for cigarettes. But there is no luck, as the shop doesn’t have cigarettes. Desperately, they leave. This is the situation with smokers in Phuentsholing.

One micro shop owner, who has quit selling cigarettes in his shop more than a week ago said he stopped because it was too risky in terms of both selling and contacting the Covid-19. “It is also very difficult to get cigarettes now,” he said.

However, the shopkeeper revealed how he used to get cigarettes until a few days ago. After the border gate was closed on March 23, there were some individuals who would come to his shop and offer cigarettes.

A box of Flake cigarettes containing 50 packets, which normally were illegally brought into the town at Nu 2,500 were sold at Nu 6,000. Another brand, popular with Bhutanese, the WILLS Navy Cut box with 20 packets inside was sold at Nu 5,000.

After the lockdown on March 25 and heightened vigilance, these dealers have vanished, other sellers said, explaining it was easier to get cigarettes in Thimphu than in Phuentsholing these days.

How do the cigarettes reach Thimphu?

A middleman, a driver by profession, Kuensel met has the answer.

“I get a call from Thimphu and they give me the vehicle details,” he said. “I collect the consignment after the vehicle enters Phuentsholing.”

The middleman said that it could be any type of vehicles—from a bolero carrying vegetables to bigger trucks with other commodities. After he receives the consignment, he drops to another party, who takes charge of transportation.

The middleman said he charges Nu 800 as commission for a box. His recent consignment was 26 boxes headed to the capital. However, there is a risk he bears until the consignment reaches Thimphu. He puts in the money from his pocket.

“I MBoB the money to the trader across the border,” he said. MBoB is an electronic money transfer facility of the Bank of Bhutan. “The Thimphu party MBoBs me when they get their cigarettes.”

The middleman, Kuensel met, said he has earned about Nu 45,000 so far. However, he has already planned to quit taking such risk. “I did it for my family but I cannot go on like this,” he said.

Today, it is Nu 25 a stick in Phuentsholing, which means it is Nu 250 for a packet that contains 10 sticks. Before the lockdown, it was sold at just Nu 10 in Jaigaon and Nu 15 in Phuentsholing.

However, the rate is much higher in Thimphu with a packet of WILLS selling between Nu 300 and Nu 500 a packet.

WHO has declared that smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to Covid-19 as the act of smoking means that fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) are in contact with the lips which increases the possibility of transmission of virus from hand to mouth.”

“Smokers may also already have lung disease or reduced lung capacity which would greatly increase risk of serious illness.”

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