BNCA rules

Most of us support the objectives of the Tobacco Control Act, which is to reduce tobacco consumption – perhaps even eradicate it – in the country. But many of us are alarmed at the severe penalties being handed out under the Act.

First Sonam Tshering, a monk, was sentenced to three years in prison for possessing a mere 48 packets of chewing tobacco. He has appealed the verdict to the High Court.

Then Lhab Tshering, a driver, was arrested for possessing 64 packets of chewing tobacco. He’s currently being tried at the Thimphu District Court, and could also receive a three-year prison term.

And a couple of weeks ago, three people – an engineer, a soldier and an officer – were arrested for allegedly smuggling nine packets of cigarettes. Three people could go to jail for three years each for smuggling nine packets of cigarettes!

Most of us support the objectives of the Tobacco Control Act. But many of us can’t make sense of how the Act is being implemented.

So I was delighted to learn that the Royal Bhutan Police had offered the government a graceful way of resolving this predicament. Kuensel reported that the police had recently written to the Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency asking them a very pertinent question:

Carrying what quantity of tobacco would be considered smuggling or violation of the Tobacco Act provisions?

And Kuensel reported that:

Police officials said for them to enforce the Tobacco Act, there was a need to “quantify” the amount of tobacco products a person was carrying.

“At least the minimum amount should be specified,” a police official said. “Are you going to charge a person, who is caught with a packet of cigarette, like one caught with thousands of tobacco products?”

But, sadly, the government did not seize the opportunity. Kuensel went on to report that:

BNCA officials said the penalty is the same, irrespective of the quantity of tobacco one is caught carrying.

There’s a big difference between smuggling to sell or distribute tobacco products, and illegal possession of tobacco for personal consumption. And that difference should be clearly defined in BNCA’s rules and regulations. But they feel that there’s no need to differentiate between the two.

That’s too bad. If the police’s concerns were accepted, a monk wouldn’t go to jail for possessing a few packets of khaini. A driver wouldn’t face a similar sentence for also possessing khaini. And three people wouldn’t be charged with smuggling nine packets of cigarettes.

At this rate, many more of our fellow citizens will end up in jail.