𝐉𝐮𝐧𝐞 𝟐𝟐, 𝟐𝟎𝟐𝟏
It has been our true strength as a nation to find a common purpose in the face of crises. Yesterday was one such day of solidarity, as we found consensus among our friends in legislation to revisit the Tobacco Control Act of Bhutan as an urgent Bill this Parliament session.
In this ceaseless battle to protect our nation from COVID-19 pandemic, our 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.
- We all know that the Act only permits the import of tobacco products within the permissible quantity by the consumer himself or herself. Our entry points were sealed in March 2020 to prevent the virus from entering the country. Rigorous patrolling is being carried out across the 699 kilometres stretch, with almost 300 outposts pitched along the borders. Despite the relentless efforts, the illegal imports of tobacco and related products have been rampant. Records with Royal Bhutan Police show 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). In doing so, some of the unpleasant encounters in the borders have proved to be life threatening for our frontliners. It could also have as much implications on our pace and harmony along the borders over time.
- The Tobacco Control Act has been a subject of contention since the beginning, mainly for its severe legal implications and criminalisation 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. This is not about undoing a law that has worked well for the nation. We understand the overpowering social and religious sentiments, and we will be mindful of that. But this is an opportunity to bring about an Act that truly fulfills its noble objective of discouraging tobacco use and protecting the health of our people.
- 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. Despite the fact, consumers who have not travelled continue to have access to tobacco products, even after the enactment of the law. How do they manage?
- What we are proposing today is not new. We 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.This time too, as we revisit the Act, we remain assured that the expansive views of the House of Review and its learned members will continue to guide us.
- Our submission is to repeal the legal provisions that restrict import and sale of tobacco in the country. 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. Our intention is to come up with more stringent regulations within the country.
- Practice across the globe reveal there are numerous ways to reduce use of tobacco products. To mention a few, there is minimum legal age for purchase of tobacco, sale of such products are prohibited in health, educational and youth related areas, selling in pieces or small packages are disallowed or there is a dedicated Tobacco Control Cell, besides numerous tobacco cessation campaigns. 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.
It will be a while before the pandemic makes way for normalcy. Our country has succeeded in preventing major outbreaks so far. But as the increasing pressure from the invisible enemy meets the growing fatigue among our frontliners, the result could be devastating. All our efforts so far could be rendered futile.
But the fact that we will now be relooking at this Act in the context of the pandemic shines new ray of hope. It is important for everyone to note here that this is not about promoting tobacco or encouraging its consumption. In fact, the intent and the spirit of the Act remains the same.
As the wisdom of the Parliament prevails in the coming days, we will ensure that our nation wins, not just the battle of the pandemic but all other aspects of health and social wellbeing.