Tobacco ban goes up in smokes

By Phurpa Wangmo

In a dramatic overture in the ongoing parliament session, the joint sitting of the National Assembly and the Council unanimously adopted the Tobacco (Amendment) Bill of Bhutan 2021 which will now allow the import and sale of tobacco and its allied products in the country.

The decision comes following the government’s request to the National Assembly Speaker and the Council Chairperson to table the Bill for amendment and to revisit the Tobacco Control Act of Bhutan as an urgent Bill this Parliament session.

The government had stated that the rationale behind amending the Tobacco Act was to protect our nation from COVID-19 pandemic which, otherwise, is compromised due to the existing ban on tobacco products.

The Prime Minister’s Office earlier wrote that while their primary focus has been to prevent the infectious disease from entering into the country, however, despite extreme, relentless efforts to seal and guard the borders, COVID-19 cases have emerged in our communities.

“All official investigations point to one main reason- illegal trading of tobacco products across the borders. Therefore, it would be lacking on our part if we don’t take this one important step of reining in the illegal transactions of tobacco and related products. In this context, we would like to share some important notes for the general understanding,” the Prime Minister’s Office noted.

Despite relentless efforts, the government states, the problem of illegal imports of tobacco and related products have been rampant.

Records with Royal Bhutan Police revealed a total confiscation of over Nu 7 million worth of tobacco products as opposed to Nu 2.9 million in 2019. In 2021, as of June, the RBP has already seized Nu 5.9 million worth of tobacco products (value calculated on MRP, without 100 percent tax).

The government also pointed out that the Tobacco Control Act has been a subject of contention since the beginning, mainly for its severe legal implications and criminalization of the offenders.

“The law exists amid thriving black market, defeating the very purpose of the ban. There are also enough indications that tobacco users have increased, particularly among youth despite the ban,” it stated.

Some of the flaws pointed out are that the current Tobacco Control Act assumes that every tobacco user has the ability to travel outside Bhutan, while the reality is many Bhutanese have never stepped beyond the country.

It is understood that despite the fact, consumers who have not travelled continue to have access to tobacco products, even after the enactment of the law questioning the very rationale behind such an Act.  

Finally the government said that they are returning to embrace the wisdom National Council propagated in 2014.

“These were the same anomalies in law that they pointed out since then, just that the need to act now has become ever more critical as it increases the risk of endangering our nation with COVID-19,” it stated.

The government had therefore submitted to repeal the legal provisions that restrict import and sale of tobacco in the country while rest of the provisions like restrictions on smoking in public places, institutions and offices, public transports and entertainment centers will stand as per the existing law.

However, the government plans to come up with more stringent regulations within the country like setting a legal age for purchase of tobacco. Further, sale of such products will be prohibited in health, educational and youth related areas among a host of other restrictions.

“All these will be enforced through effective regulation and monitoring on the ground. However, it is important to be mindful that the Act itself need not be as prescriptive and detail out everything,” the PM stated.  

Finally, the PM said that while our country has succeeded in preventing major outbreaks so far, the increasing pressure from the invisible enemy meets the growing fatigue among our frontliners and that the result could be devastating which could render all our ongoing efforts futile.

He, therefore, said that the amendment was imperative given the challenging times we are faced with, especially the rising number of cases related to tobacco smuggling in the country.

Finally, the National Assembly through a majority vote passed the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill of Bhutan 2021 this week.

With the amendment of the Bill, individuals can now sell, buy and distribute tobacco and tobacco products in the country.

The legislative committee repealed sections 11 (b) and (c) of the Bill. The committee also removed other sections concerning fines and penalties and possession and transportation of tobacco and tobacco products.

In addition, as an interim measure, the National Assembly also agreed to eliminate the 100 per cent sales tax on tobacco products. This, according to the finance minister will reduce the risk of virus importation and the illegal market in the country.

As per records maintained with RBP, over a hundred people were arrested in connection with the smuggling of tobacco goods during border sealing from March last year to June this year.

Tobacco smuggling incidences were reported from across all southern border districts while one police official nearly lost his life in a fracas with Indian smugglers.

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