If there is one obvious adverse impact from Covid-19, what tobacco consumers are experiencing at the moment is definitely one.
Despite the strict legislation and monitoring, tobacco in its varied forms is available everywhere from Thimphu to Lhuentse.
The only change is the price. Price of tobacco has spiralled out of affordability since the Covid-19 pandemic and border shut down. Vendors have also become cautious selling only to select regular customers. It has hurt consumers deep in their pockets.
Given that Bhutan is among the top countries in South Asia with a large proportion of its population consuming tobacco, many are suffering. With the loss of jobs and business, many have lost their disposable income to indulge in such habits. This has put tremendous pressure on their mental being.
Concerned with the ill effects of tobacco on health and well-being of the people, the country enacted the first tobacco control Act. The tobacco control act of 2010 was amended twice- in 2012 and 2014 following numerous loopholes and implementation problems.
Every World Tobacco Day, which we will observe in a fortnight, we boast of being one of the first countries to ban tobacco in the world. But problems arising from the Act and tobacco continue.
Legislation alone never worked of which there is ample proof and we know from experience. The only success of the ban was creating a thriving black market.
The Office of the Attorney General is imposing additional charges on those caught smuggling in tobacco products from across the porous border. In light of the Covid-19 situation, vigilance along the border is strengthened which has resulted in more arrests.
Post-Covid-19, the supply lines would resurface to revitalise the illegal market. Then the legislation would lose its teeth.
Certain quarters are already mulling over the need to amend the Tobacco Control Act again. Considering the limitations of the Act evident in its failure to curb consumption and access, it may not be a bad idea.
With a packet of cigarette costing Nu 500, a day’s wage during the Changla season, there is a lucrative market. And with limited supply, there is demand. The risk from these two is people resorting to illegal means of getting them in. The risk is amplified in the context of Bhutan trying to prevent a community transmission.
The dangers of tobacco smuggling during the times of Covid-19 are real and more hazardous than smoking or chewing tobacco. We have already cases of people trying to smuggle even with the strictest measure in place along the border. The dearth of tobacco and the tricks to bypass authorities, many say, is a greater risk in starting a community infection.
Telling people to quit is easier said than done. Counselling services and awareness have not worked. There has to be a solution. It is sensitive, both religiously and politically to lift the ban on tobacco. But if we look at the ground reality, the tobacco Act has not served its purpose too.