Selling and buying of tobacco products are no longer illegal in Bhutan


Bhutan introduced a new law on tobacco. This new act permits the sales, distribution, buying, possession, and transportation of tobacco or tobacco products in the country. It wasn’t allowed before this.

As of July 2, 2021, a new Tobacco Act has come into effect in Bhutan. The act was passed on June 25 by the National Assembly and followed royal assent. 

This new act permits the sales, distribution, buying, possession, and transportation of tobacco or tobacco products in the country. 

The history of tobacco control in Bhutan

Laws that control the flow of tobacco in Bhutan are not new. The first record of it was in 1729 when the supreme leader Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal introduced a law against tobacco usage, making Bhutan the first country in the world to do so. 

Come the 1990s, many of the 20 districts in Bhutan declared themself a smoke-free zone.

Then in 2004, the national assembly of Bhutan launched the national cigarette sales prohibition law, banning the sales of tobacco products in the country, as well as smoking in public places, private places, and recreation centres. It became the first country in the world to go completely smoke-free.

The Tobacco Control Act of Bhutan

Nonetheless, the laws remained ineffective. As such, the government introduced the Tobacco Control Act in 2010. The use of tobacco products became a non-bailable offence and anyone found in possession of tobacco could be jailed for a minimum of three years.

The first person to be charged and imprisoned under the law was Sonam Tshering, a Buddhist monk, who was caught with 180g of chewing tobacco worth Nu 120 (2.25 USD).

This resulted in a public outcry. Other crimes that are punished with three-year jail sentences are human trafficking, abduction, rape, arson, robbery, impersonating a uniformed personnel, torture, and riot. The Bhutanese wondered about the justness of this law.

Due to public pressure, the government amended the law in January 2012, increasing the permissible quantity of tobacco that can be imported to 300 cigarettes, 400 bidis, and 250g of other tobacco products. When found in possession of these items, one has to produce receipts to prove import duties, or face hefty fines.

The Act also mandates that the Government of Bhutan provide counselling and treatment to facilitate tobacco cessation. The physical health and wealth-being of the Bhutanese are important elements of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and the Tobacco Control Act recognises the harmful effects of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke on both spiritual and social health.

The problems with the Tobacco Control Act 

Even after its amendment, the law continued to draw flak from the Bhutanese people. 

For one, there was ambiguity in the rules. The act dictates that smoking areas be provided for smokers, and smoking anywhere apart from these designated areas was an offence.

With that, business owners were displeased when they were fined. They argued that the customers who violated the rules should be the only ones penalised, and not them. 

One operator of a bar explained that it was difficult to monitor what the customers were doing. It was not practical for them to be on guard outside watching out for smokers when they should be inside working instead.

Similarly, one research titled “History of Bhutan’s prohibition of cigarettes: Implications for neo-prohibitionists and their critics” published in the International Journal on Drug Policy studied the effectiveness of the anti-tobacco laws on phasing out cigarettes. The researchers looked into the smoking prevalence rate and tobacco black market trends following the enactment of the act.

The study found that the act did little to reduce tobacco usage.

The new Tobacco Act 2021

This year in 2021, the Tobacco Act was urgently amended due to the continuous smuggling of tobacco products through the country's southern borders. It was determined to be one of the primary reasons behind the spread of Covid-19 in the country. 

With the introduction of the new Tobacco Act of 2021, all pan shops and grocery retail license holders will be allowed to import and sell tobacco or tobacco products. New private dealers and wholesalers are encouraged to submit an application for a license. 

However, like alcohol, tobacco products will only be sold to anyone who’s aged 18 and above as reflected in the Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority’s (BNCA) Rules and Regulations.

Following the new act, the police released five men who were arrested after July 1 for smuggling tobacco products. Between January 2020 and June 2021, the Bhutanese police recorded 162 tobacco smuggling cases. Smugglers brought in a total of 526,213 sticks of cigarettes, 753,713 sticks of bidis, and 3,193kg of Baba plus other tobacco products.

Despite the new law on tobacco products, people are still not allowed to smoke in public areas in Bhutan. Smoking is allowed only at designated areas. 

Tobacco Control Rules and Regulations (TCRR) 2021

Previously, under the Tobacco Control Rules and Regulations, a person importing tobacco and tobacco products for personal consumption is required to pay 100% sales tax and 100% customs duty. The new Tobacco Control Rules and Regulations 2021 (TCRR) is expected to be ready by December 2021 according to the Officiating Director General, BNCA, Ugyen Tshering. 

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