Illegal tobacco supply a worrying threat, government lifts ban on tobacco

Sonam Deki/ Thimphu Amid threats to the spread of COVID-19 transmission in the country, the illegal supply of tobacco is considered the worst threat, and, to dissolve the threat, the National Assembly adopted the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill of Bhutan 2021. The Amendment Bill facilitates selling, distributing, buying, possessing, and transporting tobacco or tobacco products in the country legally. The Tobacco Control Act (2011) only retains ban on production and manufacturing of tobacco products. A Press Release from the Prime Minister’s Office on June 22 shares that ‘the intent and the spirit of the Act remains the same’ and that ‘this is not about promoting tobacco or encouraging its consumption’. One of the main reasons behind the lift on ban of tobacco, a Press Release from the Prime Minister’s Office on June 22 states, ‘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’. Despite Rigorous patrolling is being carried out across the 699 kilometres stretch, with almost 300 outposts pitched along the borders, the PMO’s press release states that 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). It further states that the illegal supply has resulted in 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 peace and harmony along the borders over time. The press release also states that as the Tobacco Control Act has been a subject of contention since the beginning, mainly for its severe legal implications and criminalisation of the offenders, so the amendment bill 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 fulfils its noble objective of discouraging tobacco use and protecting the health of our people. With lifting the ban, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji reiterated that the people must look for alternatives to prevent individuals from consuming tobacco or tobacco products just like alcohol, a rule that only above the age of 18 can purchase the products, that it must follow the rule clearly written under Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority’s Rule and Regulations. The Chairperson of Legislative Committee, Tshewang Lhamo added that the parliament has also lifted the sections containing fines and penalties on possession and transportation of tobacco products. Earlier an individual can purchase only 800 sticks of cigarettes or 1200 sticks of bidis or 150 pieces of cigars or 750 grams of other tobacco products. Meanwhile, some of the members in the parliament suggested on removing the customs duty along with the sales tax as every individual has to pay 100 per cent customs tax if imported from India and an additional 100 per cent from the third countries. However, Finance Minister Namgay Tshering said “if we do away with the custom duty, it will encourage the people to purchase and consume more tobacco or tobacco products and the products are usually imported through air/ship from third countries, however ships are only used for large consignments. So far it has never affected us and should not do away with the custom duty.” The minister added that the act will expire in July next year with the implementation of Goods and Services Tax Act of Bhutan 2020. The National Assembly adopted the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill of Bhutan (2021) with 33 Yes, 1 No, and 1 abstaining out of the total of 35 Members present and voting. The bill has been referred to National Council.