In the meantime, illegal smuggling continues to flood the local market  

Younten Tshedup 

More than a month after the Tobacco Act was amended as an urgent bill by the National Assembly, tobacco and tobacco products continue to be readily available in the market today.

However, the contraband comes with a cost. A packet of Wills Navy Cut cigarettes (10-piece) cost Nu 300 today, against the maximum retail price (MRP) of Nu 110. A packet of chewing tobacco, Baba, with an MRP of Nu 3 costs anywhere between Nu 80 to Nu 100 in the market today.

Those selling the products say that the ‘market price’ has not dropped.

“This is the same rate which we have been charging since last year,” said a shopkeeper in Thimphu.

The fact that these illegal products are readily available in the market today indicates that illegal smuggling of tobacco and tobacco products is still happening across the border.

The Tobacco Act was amended in the summer session as an urgent bill in view of the continued smuggling of tobacco products through the porous border in the south, which has been identified as one of the main reasons for the spread of the Covid-19 virus in the country.

“The decision to lift the ban on sale and import of tobacco products came as good news for people like us,” said the shopkeeper. “Honestly, there is not much of a profit for retailers like us. It is only those who import illegally from India who make the biggest profit from this business. We just buy from these dealers at almost the same price we offer our customers.”

Many users of the product have also been anxiously waiting for the revised rates under the new Tobacco Act. “The government pushing for the revision was an indication that things would be done at the earliest.  

But there seems to be no change whatsoever,” said a civil servant, who requested anonymity.

He said that tobacco and tobacco products are readily available in most of the shops in Thimphu. “The reason why there is no shortage of tobacco in Thimphu despite the lockdown in Phuentsholing is because people are still smuggling it illegally,” he said, adding that the amendment of the Act would be of no use if the illegal tobacco business continues.

“The government must act fast or else the black market will continue to grow along with the risk of virus from across the border,” he added.

Although the implementation date of the new Tobacco Act remains unsure for now, the Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority (BNCA) has notified that the Bhutan Duty-Free Limited will make its existing tobacco stock available to the authorised outlets for sale, until the supply commences.

Under the interim standard operating procedure (SOP), authorised tobacco shops and tobacco wholesale dealers will be the only entities permitted to import the products.

BNCA stated that only micro general shops including ‘pan’ shops, and grocery retailers will be allowed to sell tobacco and related products. Dealers and sellers of tobacco and tobacco products are required to maintain daily records of their importation, sale, and distribution.

It will be mandatory for sellers to seek an identification card or proof of age before selling any tobacco or tobacco products. The sale of ‘loose’ cigarette sticks will not be permitted as per the interim SOP.

Using tobacco and related products in open and public places will continue to be prohibited and strictly monitored by the authorities concerned.

Meanwhile, the government plans to conduct aggressive awareness programmes on the harmful effects of tobacco to offset the impact of lifting the ban.

Edited by Jigme Wangchuk