Tobacco Control Act and Which Army? – Tshetrim Namgay


Prohibition never works and that is a mild statement. The tobacco ban is a colossal joke by some old-school highfalutin religious social moralist, and the part that really sticks it in is that it isn’t primarily for the various health hazards, though the Act does make a reference, but the apocryphal discourse of an 8th century yogi, the authenticity of which cannot be found in any of the chronicles of this Guru nor that of the Buddha thus precluding the “spirituality…. point of view” of the legislative wording.

It is the legal equivalent of the “kid, there is a monster under your bed ready to eat you if you aren’t a good boy” parents’ argument. It would go a long way if the parents knew children and their unfailing contrarianism.

Or are we doing this to build an image for the rest of the world? We know Bhutan loves superlatives; the happiest and most peaceful country, biggest Buddha statue in the world, most friendly people, cleanest air and so on, which can all be contested, and contested well because they aren’t whole truths. But I digress.

There is a reason prohibition has kept failing from the time of Yu the Great, first leader of the Xu Dynasty in China, 2070 BCE, the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian code of Law, 1772 BCE and more recentlycountries like Canada, the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, the Faroe Islands, Norway, the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Finland and the United States in the 20th century; people do what they do and lawmakers need to know what people do. Sadly, and waspishly, it is the “should” rut they bask in.

Incidentally, The Untouchables, a movie about the prohibition in the USA, just started on HBO. Al Capone (De Niro) is getting a shave.

Of course an Al Capone is not one we would likely see in Bhutan, small as it is, nor does the black market roll in the kind of cash Capone and mobsters like him did. Draw it to scale though and the business is almost proportionate. The demand is constant and the ban is a very kindly gifted business opportunity. I suspect the lawmakers did not intend for that contribution to the economy.

Small businesses now make a neat 50% profit on Cigarettes and 400% (!) on smokeless tobacco. Come 11pm and the profit margin rockets to 250% and 800%.

In fact, the sale of tobacco is to the small pan shop what rice is to the Bhutanese meal.

Ask the shopkeepers why they cross that legal line and the common refrain (in Dzongkha, Sharshop, Lhotshampa, Khengkha and Lunap)is “What else can we do? No cigarettes, no profit”.That is a very hard statement to contest especially coming from a 2.5 sq. meter shop.

The black market is the new gold and business owners are mining it with a fervor. So much so that it is possible to buy cigarettes even in Laya, a day’s steep walk from the nearest road where people still lead a semi nomadic life in their yurts. In Thimphu alone there are more than a hundred shops with tobacco on the menu and you can buy it as late, or as early, as 4AM.

Operating on the wrong side of the law does have its obvious occupational hazards attached and the Tobacco Control Act actively courts such conflict. Most sellers are however blasé to a potential police raid, unless there is an upcoming election and the incumbent him/herself walks the beat with law enforcement officers. Then it does not matter that the policemen buy cigarettes from that very shop. The shopkeeper is slapped a fine, worth more than all the goods in her little shop, the politician has pandered to the moralists and the policemen have given an apologetic shrug in uniformed unison.

It is alright though. The fine can be remade comfortably from the next batch of contraband; the apotheosis of irony.

Understandably, they are a skittish lot and unless you know the keeper, a Gho or Kira is a complete turn off.

So what do the keepers do when there is a raid? Rely on these selfsame policemen for information. What do they do to prevent some snitch, euphemistically called CIDs, calling the police or the narcotics authority or some plainclothes policeman, or a stranger in a gho or anybody attired in any color blue?  They look you straight in the eyes, assess your snitch meter, glance at your boots to make sure they aren’t police issued, weigh your overall tobacco criminality and then say no. Then you wait for some regular customer and ask them to buy it for you.

In short, the infamous ban succeeds only in sporadic raids by police and narcotics personnel, financial pressure on already low income businesses and feeding the youths’ La Douleur Exquise; let’s not even get started on the case of ex-monk Sonam Tshering imprisoned for 383 days over Nu.120 worth of tobacco.

By now it is established that the TCA is not working, or at best functioning just that tiny inch above abysmal failure which allow advocates to puff up an argument for it.With the exception of aforementioned religious moralists who have all but annihilated a core value of the Dharma; tolerance. To comprehend this doddering law, one has to but hop around the many clubs in town where at least a few hundred are puffing away like a zealous intervention for a tobacco restricted country.

Elementary deduction, dear Reader, that the smokers didn’t all march out across the borders, pay a 100% tax and come back with 200 sticks each.

So what can lawmakers do about this? Make it more Draconian and start jailing people? Good luck building enough prisons.

Repeal the Act altogether? Good luck financing free healthcare for eternity.

Keep the status quo? Good luck preventing the black market growing or worse, being taken over by some single supplier. Organized crime; farfetched but not impossible.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), of which Bhutan is a member as stated in the preamble of the Act suggests a)the implementation of higher taxation,b) prohibition of smoking in public or work places, c) comprehensive ban of tobacco advertisement, d) cessation programs for tobacco addicts, e) restricted sale to minors f) the elimination of illicit tobacco sale, g) large visible no smoking signs and h) promote public awareness.

Bhutan is trying. And failing. A recent review of the FCTC itself concluded that actual compliance throughout the globe with the framework is minimal and its implementation riddled with errors. A tobacco-free country is the red herring moralists have fallen in love with.

There is a lesson to be learned from Cannabis Legalization in the west. Since legalization, criminal activities have decreased, government taxes have grown and black money dried up.

That lesson learned (hopefully), the Act would best be served by sanctioning a sales license for small businesses,like pan shops, whose incomes depend on tobacco products,to conduct sales albeit with prohibitively high taxes in the region of 200% or more.

The only possible hurdle, and it is minute, in the Constitution is in Article 14, Clause 16 under Finance, Trade and Commerce which states the “Parliament shall not enact laws that allow monopoly except to safeguard national security”.

Well, cigarettes are hardly citizen Kane to the country and with the number of pan shops currently in the mines, the monopoly fish is already dead in the water.

I am no Ramanujan but tobacco could actually add largely to the government exchequer, and heaven knows the government could use it.

All we need are some good old rational lawmakers.

(The writer is a civil engineer by qualification, a writer by passion and a tour guide and agent by necessity. He is also an Airbnb host)