NC had already flagged smuggling concerns and recommended allowing sale of tobacco in 2014
On 22nd of June, the Speaker of the National Assembly declared the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill 2021 as an Urgent Bill.
The Economic Affairs Minister Loknath Sharma said that due to increasing number of smuggling incidences along the border the risks of transmitting COVID-19 are high and so allowing people to sell, distribute, buy and transport tobacco or tobacco products in the country can at least smuggling and the threat of spreading COVID-19 through the country’s porous southern border.
The Economic Affairs Minister said that for the Delta variant which is spreading rapidly in the country a study was conducted, and it was discovered that the virus is spread by people who use tobacco and sell tobacco products.
He also said that due to lack of accessibility and high market price, they were forced to smuggle tobacco products as per RBP’s records and more than hundred people were arrested due to smuggling of tobacco goods during the border sealing between March 2020 to June 2021 mostly from Phuentsholing, Samtse, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar.
Choki Gyeltshen, Maenbi-Tsaenkhar Constituency’s MP said that if the amendment is till the situation improves then it is acceptable, but if it is changed for the long term then the youth will be encouraged to consume tobacco products in the future and it will be extremely difficult for the youth to stop once they get used to it.
Likewise, other MPs were in favor of the proposed amendment given that the amendment was a temporary solution to reduce the COVID-19 risk. It was emphasized that it is important to know that this is not about promoting tobacco or encouraging its consumption. The intent and the spirit of the Act remains the same.
In March 2020 entry points were sealed to prevent the virus from entering the country with rigorous patrolling being carried out across the borders but it was learnt that the illegal imports of tobacco have been rampant and growing.
In 2018 around 3.7 mn tobacco products were seized, in 2019 it was 5.8 mn but in 2020 this shot up to 14.1 mn and in 2021 till 12th June a period of just six months it has already touched 11.9 mn.
The provisions like restrictions on smoking in public places, institutions and offices, public transports and entertainment centers will stand as per the existing law. The government intends to come up with more stringent regulations within the country.
MP Tshewang Lhamo, presented the Committee’s recommendation on the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill of Bhutan 2021. All of the 19 recommendations were endorsed repealing the ban on selling, distributing, buying, possessing, and transporting tobacco or tobacco products in the country.
However, the ban on the production and manufacturing is still retained.
The Bill was also deliberated in the National Council where it passed smoothly.
This is especially so because it was the NC in 2014 which amended the Tobacco Act and proposed to allow the sale of tobacco given the smuggling and black market.
However, at the time the NA shot it down and only increased the amount of tobacco to be allowed legally per person and it decreased the legal penalties.
In between 23rd March 2020 from the sealing of the border to 12th June there have been 144 cross border tobacco smuggling related cases. Of these 58 are in Phuentsholing, 39 in Samtse, 38 in Gelephu and 9 in Samdrupjongkhar.