Smitha Verma COVID-19 Brings Tobacco ‘Legally’ to Bhutan, and Smokers Can’t be Happier

Tashi Tshering, a 38-year-old musician from Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, is a happy man. He doesn’t have to worry about getting caught by the authorities or paying exorbitant amounts to black marketeers while discreetly procuring his chewing tobacco.

Bhutan, known for its Gross National Happiness index, temporarily lifted the ban on the sale of tobacco products on August 1. The country, with one of the world’s strictest anti-tobacco laws, has allowed the sale of tobacco products through state-owned shops as an interim measure in response to the pandemic.

“It’s a thoughtful gesture by the government during the lockdown. It shows that the government cares about us,” Tshering told VICE News.

Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, a surgeon who practices on weekends, said that the move is aimed at curbing black market of tobacco. “We are not trying to be legally correct here. We want to be correct from COVID-19 point of view,” the Bhutanese media quoted him as saying.

The tiny landlocked Himalayan kingdom, which shares its border with India and China, went into a national lockdown on August 11 after a
cross-border transmission. A worker handling goods at the border town of Phuentsholing had tested positive following which the government had announced that essential goods, including tobacco, will be delivered home.

“I believe it is a pragmatic move as the porous border between Bhutan and India could have resulted in community transmission,” Dr Choden Dorji, a psychiatrist from Thimphu, told VICE News.

Dr Dorji, who has worked extensively with the youth on deaddiction, praised the government’s current move.

Tobacco consumption is considered a sin in the predominantly Buddhist country with a population of 7,50,000.

In 1651, the country’s founding father, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, prohibited the use of intoxicating substances in monasteries and fortresses. In 1729, Bhutan prohibited tobacco products in places of worship and forts.

Under the current law, the manufacture and sale of tobacco is illegal but one can import fixed amounts after paying import duty and state taxes. The stringent law has led to a thriving black market.

“Due to high profits involved, people were smuggling in tobacco even during the pandemic when the border was highly guarded,” Dr Dorji told VICE News. A cigarette packet, which costs Nu 150 (USD 2.04 ) at the duty-free shop, costs Nu 450  (USD 6.12) in the black market.

But the ban never deterred smokers. In 2016, a World Health Organization sponsored survey of school children in the country, aged 13-17 years, found out that 30 percent of them were using some form of tobacco.

The temporary lift on tobacco ban has had its share of controversy. The opposition party, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has criticised the move. “They [PDP] have accused the government of violating the tobacco Act,” Tenzing Lamsang, editor, The Bhutanese newspaper, told VICE News. “The PDP argues that the Act should have been amended first. The government says it did not violate the law or the constitution, given the situation.”

According to data on the government website, as on September 8, there were 233  COVID-19 positive cases and no casualties. The country reported the first coronavirus case on March 2 after a U.S. tourist tested positive. A female student who returned from Europe on March 26 was the first Bhutanese to test positive in the country.

Follow Smitha Verma on Twitter.

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