More than a month ago, the Tobacco Control (amendment) Bill was put up to the Parliament as an urgent Bill. There was the urgency because smuggling tobacco was becoming rampant, risking the preventive measures put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The Bill was one of the few legislations that sailed easily through both houses of Parliament in recent years. The amended Bill received the Royal Ascent. However, there is hardly anything happening on the ground if we go by how tobacco is still traded in the black market. The Royal assent might have come a week ago, but between the time when the Act was put up to Parliament as an urgent Bill and passing of the Act, we had a lot of time to prepare and work with urgency.
The Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority is waiting for directives from the government as to how to go ahead with the amended Act. There is a lot of paperwork involved and the long bureaucratic procedures could mean that it will take at least a few weeks or more before anything happens on the ground even with an Act, amended despite a lot of controversy and sentiments.
In the meantime, the only active, hard-working and forward-looking were the ones in the illegal tobacco business. Those in the illicit market are way ahead in terms of preparation. Their business plan was clearly laid out even as words of legislating the sale of tobacco spread before it reached Parliament. Some cut down on smuggling, but “suppliers” ensured retailers that it would at least take a few months before the government could act on the amended Act. They were right. Even with a stricter lockdown in Phuentsholing, essentials may be in short supply, but not tobacco.
We experienced how the decision to allow the Bhutan Duty-Free Limited (BDFL) sell tobacco didn’t help the noble intention of the government. Tobacco was cheaper from the BDFL even after paying 100 percent tax. In this context, 20 grammes of chewing tobacco in the black market could buy a dozen packets from the BDFL. The only difference was that for the first time, Bhutanese looked into the black market for quality goods. The goods BDFL was selling were not good and it failed to stop the black market.
The longer we delay, the bigger the implications. There is news that a third wave could possibly enter India through the Siliguri corridor. The corridor borders Bhutan from Sibsoo to Bangtar and we are, if it is true, at a bigger risk of a third wave of Covid-19.
It is surprising that Bhutan is the only country where tobacco is linked to the spread of Covid-19. But we have seen how lucrative smuggling tobacco in a Buddhist country is undoing all the efforts put in to save the country and its people.
The tobacco law is relaxed to the extent that we can import and sell them without the 100 percent tax. If we take time to implement, what was considered an urgent decision, we are failing again.