Hands folded and almost cursing himself, economic affairs minister Loknath Sharma took the blame for legalising the import and sale of tobacco, which the National Assembly passed.

Critical sections of the Tobacco Control Act were repealed with parliamentarians unanimously voting for the amendment in the Assembly making tobacco cheap and easily available. Smuggling of tobacco, it is proven, as the highest risk in preventing a full-blown outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus in the community. Once the National Council ‘ayes’ to the decision of the Assembly, tobacco will be imported at zero tax both for personal and commercial purposes. If the decision can help the nation’s effort to prevent Covid-19 from causing havoc to Bhutanese, it should be welcomed, even if it is against our religion.

All attention, today, is on fighting Covid-19. Guided by the wisdom of His Majesty The King, the policies put in place to keep the impact of the pandemic at the minimum, we have left no stone unturned. The Royal coffer is drained out to help the people. Fiscal and monetary policies are initiated and extended, hoping that the benefits would trickle down to the common man, in our fight against the invisible enemy.

It is difficult to pin down the reasons why cases are reported even with all the efforts put in. Smuggling tobacco, because the illegal business is lucrative and enticing, is one reason confirmed with facts and statistics. Bhutan doesn’t produce or manufacture tobacco. It has to be imported or smuggled in when borders are closed. It is a huge risk.

The government’s decision is temporary. When the situation improves and when the Goods and Service Tax is being discussed, we could always look into the tobacco import issue. For now, it is wiser to plug the loopholes. 

Tobacco, with hindsight, has been a double-edged sword. The ban of import or sale had helped only a small portion of the society. There is no dearth of tobacco, smoking or chewing. The only difference is that it has become hundred times more expensive, encouraging a thriving black market. The irony is that all of us – the legislators, the law implementers, those presiding over cases and those reporting, and the media, are aware of what is happening without doing anything.

Banning import or sale of tobacco has not helped. Since the ban, studies reveal that tobacco use has increased, especially among the youth, both at regional and global level. If legislation is not living up to its intended purpose, it is only wise to amend it. As a Buddhist nation, tobacco is a big NO. It is against our religion and at a time when non-communicable diseases are burdening the government, tobacco should not be encouraged, not through legislation. However, we have to see if laws and rules are fulfilling the intention. The results are not encouraging from the few studies we have.

What we can do is come with measures to discourage people from abusing tobacco. Smoking in public places is the only positive impact we have seen after the Act was enforced. We could come up with several initiatives to curb abuse of tobacco. Advocacy is one. It should be strengthened. What initiatives or options do we have to tell a chain smoker to kick the habit? The health ministry should look into best practices to help the people. What options do we offer if people want to stop smoking? What alternatives do we have? How much are we investing in prevention after knowing the ills of tobacco or alcohol?

The pandemic has forced us to amend an Act that attracted global attention and admiration. Are we living up to the expectations? Laws should be reviewed depending on its impact.