Short and sweet

Assembly

The 8th Session of the Parliament concluded last Friday. It was easily our shortest session: we started on 4 January and ended, barely 12 working days later, on 20 January.

But the 8th session was historic. Her Majesty the Queen graced both the opening and closing ceremonies; and the members of Parliament got to offer the Oath of Allegiance to the Throne.

Plus, the joint sitting of the Parliament amended the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act and the Public Finance Act to align them in accordance with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution which had been rendered in the first constitutional case (Incidentally, the amendments had actually been proposed by the ruling party in the 6th session to give the government sweeping powers to introduce, increase and revise all taxes); the Parliament amended the Tobacco Control Act, responding to public outcry that the law was flawed and draconian; the National Council passed the first-ever private bill, the National Flag Bill, introduced by NC MP from Wangduephodrang; and the Speaker invoked special powers granted to him in the Legislative Procedure Rules to block the Parliament from voting on the Election (Amendment) Bill that mainly sought to permit state funding for political parties.

The 8th session was also quite productive. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, the National Assembly passed five bills (Consumer Protection Bill, Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Fund Bill, Education City Bill, Disaster Management Bill and University of Medical Sciences Bill) and ratified one international convention (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands); the National Council passed the University of Medical Sciences Bill, the Parliamentary Entitlement (Amendment) Bill, and ratified the Ramsar Convention; the joint sitting passed the Child Adoption Bill; and both houses endorsed the government’s proposal to increase the salaries of tshogpas, and questioned the government on a range of issues.

The 8th Session was short. But it was productive. A lesson, perhaps, that we should keep our future sessions as tight as possible.

In action or inaction?

The National Council and National Assembly will meet in a joint sitting tomorrow to discuss two important matters: the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill, and state funding for political parties.

On the first matter, the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill, I’m delighted that the National Council has come through. Their recommendations aim to amend the draconian law to make it sensible and implementable. Naturally, I agree with their recommendations.

The discussions are not going to be easy. They’re going to be difficult. And complicated. If, at the joint sitting, we agree on the National Council’s proposed amendments, the current ban on the sale and purchase of tobacco products will lifted in favour of taxation to reduce tobacco consumption in our country.

If we agree on the National Assembly’s proposed amendments, the current ban on the sale and purchase of tobacco products will continue, but the penalties for breaking the law will be spread according to the quantity of tobacco involved.

But if we do not reach an agreement – that is, if neither proposal, nor one that the joint committee comes up with by tomorrow, is supported by at least two-thirds of the MPs present and voting – the amendment bill will be declared a “dead” bill. And we will be stuck with the current Tobacco Control Act.

Democracy in action. Or democracy inaction. We’ll see tomorrow.

Controling tobacco control

There's hope

The National Assembly has passed the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill. 39 MPs voted for the amendment. One MP voted against it. And I abstained.

I believe that the proposed amendments do not adequately address the shortcomings of the Tobacco Control Act. That’s why I didn’t vote for the amendment. But I couldn’t vote against the amendment either, as doing so would amount to supporting the existing Tobacco Control Act. That would be unthinkable. And so I abstained.

Here’s the main difference between the Act and the amendment: while the existing Act condemns all offenders to prison, regardless of the quantity of tobacco involved, the amendment staggers the penalties for illegal possession of tobacco products based on the quantities.

So, for instance, if you’re caught with less than the “permissible quantity” of 200 sticks of cigarettes or 150g of khaini you’ll be let off with a fine, which will be set by the tobacco control board. (Sorry, you won’t get to keep the contraband.)

If you’re caught with more than 200 sticks of cigarettes or 150g of khaini, but less than three times that “permissible quantity”, you’ll be slapped with a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor carries a prison sentence of one to three years. But the sentence is compoundable. So you could pay thrimthue of Nu 36,500 (at today’s wage rates) instead of serving time in jail. But be careful. If you are a civil servant, according to the civil service rules, you’ll lose your job and your benefits if you are found guilt of a misdemeanor.

And if you’re caught with three times the “permissible quantity” – that’s 600 cigarettes or 450g of khaini – you’ll receive a felony of the fourth degree. That means that you’ll be sent to jail for 3 to 5 years. A felony is not compoundable, so you will not be able to pay thrimthue. You will have to serve your jail sentence.

If the amendment sounds better than the current draconian Act, it is. Yet I didn’t I support it. Here’s why:

First, the amendment, like the existing Act, continues to allow people to legally import tobacco. Travelers, and those fortunate to live in bordering towns, can continue to legally import tobacco up to the “permissible quantity”. The way I see it, if we’re going to allow some people to purchase and consume tobacco legally, we should allow other people to do so too.

Second, the amendment, like the existing Act, does not recognize the simple fact that prohibition has never worked and will not work. That’s why a black market quickly (and effectively) established itself in spite of the draconian provisions of the existing Act. That’s why, in the year since the Tobacco Control Act came into effect, many people took their chances despite the stiff sentences in it. Of the many, 84 people got caught. And of them, 39 people have already been sent to jail.

If the amendment goes through, a minority of us will continue to be able to procure and consume tobacco legally. But for the most of us, if we consume tobacco, we will continue to be doing so illegally. That would make us criminals. And because the penalties have now been staggered, expect a bigger black market; expect many more criminals.

There’s no doubt that tobacco consumption goes against our beliefs and our traditions. And there’s absolutely no doubt that tobacco consumption is bad for our health. So we must reduce the amount of tobacco we consume, we must smoke less, and we must chew less khaini.

But I don’t see that happening through the Tobacco Control Act or, for that matter, the proposed amendments. Instead, we should allow the sale of tobacco products. But we should tax the products sufficiently to discourage its indiscriminate consumption. And we should limit the places where tobacco products are sold. We should also set and enforce a sensible minimum age to buy and consume tobacco. And we should make all public places completely tobacco free.

But most importantly, we should educate ourselves about the ills of tobacco consumption. And to educate ourselves meaningfully, all of us – teachers, religious heads, doctors, journalists, businesses, politicians, celebrities, parents, all of us – must work together, hand in hand, to convince ourselves, and then our children, that smoking and chewing khaini may not be worthwhile.

The Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill is an urgent bill. So it will be discussed in the National Council in the next few days. I remain hopeful that we can correct the excesses of the Tobacco Control Act in a meaningful manner, one that is both logical and implementable.