The tobacco dilemma

The government, despite severe criticisms from several groups and political parties, went ahead with the decision to allow the sale of tobacco in the country. It made the Bhutan Duty Free Limited the main vendor of tobacco products.

The idea was to curb the illegal trade of tobacco along the border, seen as high risk of contracting Covid-19 by the illegal movement of people, and to control the tobacco black market in the country. It was well received, especially those who use tobacco and who had been paying through the nose after the closure of the border.

Today, tobacco is available and cheaper even if it takes hours or days and a lot of patience waiting in line at the outlets.

However, it seems like the idea has only partially worked. The black market is as thriving as it was before the pandemic or before the state-owned enterprise ventured into distributing tobacco. We have not heard of people getting nabbed for crossing the border illegally to smuggle in tobacco, but judging by the black market, the supply has not been disrupted by the government’s initiative.

Many are suspecting that those in the black market are making the most of the government’s idea. When the government decided to allow the Bhutan Duty Free to sell tobacco, there were concerns that it would fuel the black market. Although there are no records, it seems that this is what is happening. The criticism is that the government has replaced the tobacco sellers in Jaigaon.

Those in the black market have tricks up their sleeves. It is not surprising, like many suspect, if they are buying tobacco from the outlets, hoard it and then resell it. It is very easy to hoodwink authorities. The monthly quota, 750 grams or 75 packets of chewing tobacco and 800 sticks per person, is enough to make a good profit margin when sold in the black market. The trick is that anybody with a citizenship identity card can buy a month’s quota. At the outsourced outlets, it is not sure if a person coming daily is checked for his or her details.

If the government’s decision is fuelling the black market, it is the biggest irony. Black markets are difficult to curb and the pandemic has restricted inspectors to move around as freely as those in the illegal trade. About 10 businesses licences were cancelled for illegal possession of tobacco in Thimphu. But this is just scratching the surface. There are shops selling tobacco all over the city. Everybody knows them, perhaps except the authorities or officials trying to go after them.

A decision, to allow the sale of tobacco, has been made. It has to be streamlined. If policy makers are lost of ideas, they could ask a tobacco user. Many say that rationing or not giving 800 sticks of cigarettes or 750 packets of chewing tobacco could help prevent hoarding by the black marketers.

The tobacco issue is an old issue without successive governments finding a good solution. It is time to relook into the policy. The Tobacco Control Act should be amended when parliament session resumes if we are to find a longer-term solution. However, the best, if we can do is continue with advocacy and strategies to make people kick the bad habit. Tobacco is bad from the health and religious, and even from the financial point of view.

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