With the Tobacco Control Act doing away with taxes and restrictions on import and sale, tobacco will be freely and cheaply available. It is a matter of days before outlets are identified to import and sell tobacco.
The stringent Tobacco Control Act was amended in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, tobacco was recognised as a threat in the country’s fight against the disease. Smuggling tobacco products to meet the demand of the lucrative black market, risked all the efforts put in to secure our porous borders from illegal entrants. The government had taken the risk to totally overturn an Act that albeit being controversial, was successful in some ways of controlling tobacco consumption.
The black market may have thrived, but lighting up a cigarette in public places, quite normal before the Act, was the most successful result. It could also have made many to quit the habit completely or cut down on consumption. Tobacco products became dearer and unavailable, at least in rural Bhutan encouraging many to kick the habit.
That the Act has been amended and tobacco made cheap and available should not be construed as the government encouraging people to abuse tobacco. Legal or illegal, tobacco is injurious to health. It is related to many of the non-communicable diseases that are burdening our health system. It is still against our religion. The dratshang has not made its feeling known, recognising the urgency to amend the Act. They will be silently ruing the government’s decision. Everybody is in consideration of the bigger problem in the light of the pandemic.
Some rules will still stand. Smoking in public places, restriction of sale of tobacco to children, not marketing or displaying tobacco products are some softer measures to discourage people. Advocacy programmes on the ills of tobacco should continue and receive priority. Studies have found that use of tobacco is rampant among the youth, especially students. One in five students abused one or the other form of tobacco. This is a cause of concern.
There are still ways to control tobacco use, especially those vulnerable to picking up the habit. The responsibility falls on all Bhutanese. We cannot leave it to teachers or school authorities, if it is among students. If the few rules are strictly implemented, we could still see some results. For instance, we cannot serve alcohol to those below 18 years. How many bars or the “bar cum restaurants” check the age? The same will apply to tobacco. If those allowed to sell tobacco strictly adhere to the rules, it could help.
Tobacco advertising is a million dollar business. The media has resisted that revenue by respecting regulations. When tobacco is made cheaper, which the amended Act has made, there is not much revenue that outlets would make by violating rules. They could play a part in discouraging youth from abusing tobacco. In fact, the change in the tobacco Act might be more effective in controlling tobacco usage. That is if we can understand and the respect the decision that we were forced to make. Nonsmokers should also have the right even if the Act is amended. We have to protect them by strictly monitoring easily implementable rules like not allowing smoking in public places or creating designated smoking places.