The tobacco debate

With the government allowing controlled sale of tobacco, a hugely contested and debated issue in the past is being talked about again. 

The government’s decision is appreciated not for making tobacco available from the duty free outlets, but because it is seen as a rational decision in the wake of Covid-19 and increasing breach of border protocols.

There is a discourse on the decision and the whole issue of tobacco. This time, it is a healthy discourse. This is what we need as the government’s decision has provided a window of opportunity to table the Tobacco Control Act for amendment.

The Act was dubbed as the most draconian legislation when punishment meted out for bringing in a few grammes of tobacco without paying tax was imprisonment for three years. Since then, it has been amended twice. Yet there are issues. The Act has not served its purpose. It has, rather, created several illegal activities like smuggling.

Tobacco, in any form, is bad for health. When we banned the sale of tobacco, we made international headlines. Countries around the world, both developed and least developed, have been fighting the tobacco ill. Not many managed to do it. Our decision was seen as an example and we were lauded in the international arena. However, the purpose of the tobacco legislation is not to impress others, an inherent Bhutanese quality.

Anti-smoking sentiments in Bhutan from which the lobby stems is, of course, very strong, and is based on fairly sound foundations. It is health on one side and religion on the other. If tobacco was the main cause of tuberculosis, a poor man’s disease, Buddhism was against tobacco. It is said that tobacco grew from the waste of menstruation to intoxicate and disturb Guru Rinpoche while in meditation.

The tobacco law is clear. The government has opened itself to criticism for allowing its sale. But lets not pretend to not understand the motive. Bhutanese could import a certain quantity before borders were closed and foreign travel restricted. Without an avenue to buy from, the outlets became the foreign agency or in our case border town or duty-free shops for the privileged.

This is an arrangement to let tobacco users enjoy their right and a solution to the increasing problem of breaching border protocols. Recognising that increased incidents of border crossing and getting in touch with people across the border could undermine our preventive measures, the controlled sale was allowed. 

It is a temporary measure in a state of emergency. The Covid-19 is a global emergency and laws have to be tweaked to fight a pandemic.

We have done this during the pandemic. Businesses were closed, timing was changed and gatherings were disallowed.  Some would say that the health ministry forcing people to wear masks is against their fundamental rights. But everybody agrees or cooperates because they understand the priority. The priority today is to prevent a community outbreak. Depriving people access to tobacco will not prevent a transmission. In fact, it is seen as a potential risk.

There are suggestions to make the tobacco legislation strict. We did that, but governments were taken to courts. Lobby groups won the sentiments of the masses. When it comes to the tobacco legislation, it is like the Aesop fable of the man taking his family and donkey to the market.

For the first time, ordinary Bhutanese have access to tobacco legally and without having to pay through their nose. The decision didn’t allow Bhutanese to grow or import and sell tobacco. Bhutan Duty Free is made the “foreign agent” or simply put, a duty free shop at an airport in Kolkata or Bangkok.

What we should be concerned about is if the few outlets would curb illegal border crossing. If the outlets are concentrated in Thimphu and Phuentsholing, it will not serve the purpose. In fact, the decision will create another kind of black market where people will buy from the outlets and sell it to dzongkhags.

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