Control tobacco control

The International Tobacco Control Bhutan Report has recently established that the majority of the Bhutanese support tobacco control. According to the report, 95% of us disapprove of tobacco consumption due to religious reasons. And 97% of us support strict tobacco control.

The report seems to have given the government a renewed sense of confidence in the Tobacco Control Act. And a smug health minister was recently quoted as declaring that “… the members of parliament will think twice to amend the Tobacco Control Act now.”

But the ITC Bhutan Report has not revealed anything new. We already know that, in general, we, Bhutanese, frown on tobacco consumption. And that most of us favour tobacco control measures. The report has not “revealed” anything new. So there’s no reason for us to get excited.

There’s no doubt that we, Bhutanese, by and large, support the overall intention of the Tobacco Control Act. All of us wish to reduce – perhaps even eradicate – the use of tobacco in our country.

But that does not mean that we should not question the details of the Tobacco Control Act. Or that we should not challenge the way the government implements (or does not implement) the provisions of the act.

So we cannot allow the government to use a report prepared by a foreign agency – an interest group at that – to subvert the ongoing discussions on tobacco control.

Discussions that seek to ask, for instance, why Sonam Tshering must be sentenced to three years in imprisonment for simply possessing 48 packets of chewing tobacco that retails in India for a mere Nu 98.

Is he being sent to jail because chewing tobacco is criminal? If so, why are we allowed to consume tobacco in the first place? The Act, after all, entitles us to consume tobacco – to chew and to smoke, even in designated public places – if the tobacco we so consume has been imported legally.

Or is he being sent to jail for tax evasion? He bought the tobacco in India, but did not declare it or pay taxes on it when he entered Bhutan. Had he declared the 48 packets of chewing tobacco, he would have had to pay Nu 98 in taxes. For Nu 98 in unpaid taxes you don’t normally even get questioned, let alone sent to jail, and sent to jail for three years at that.

Or is he being sent to jail for smuggling. The Tobacco Control Act stipulates a minimum sentence of three years in jail for smuggling tobacco. But is the prosecution convinced that Sonam Tshering was indeed smuggling? If so, can they prove that he was smuggling? After all, 48 packets of chewing tobacco, worth only Nu 98 in India, could hardly be enough for a black market. So they must have been bought for his personal consumption.

Sonam Tshering represents just the tip of the iceberg. Many others have been arrested, some for possessing even smaller quantities of tobacco. At this rate, many more of us will end up in jail unless we amend the Tobacco Control Act.

We must abide by the laws of the land. And if we violate them, we must accept punishment. But if a law is defective – if it is unjust, if it is draconian – we must discuss it, we must review it, and, if needed, be prepared to amend it.

Yes, we frown on tobacco consumption. And yes, we support tobacco control. We know this. And we don’t need the International Tobacco Control Project to tell us what we already know.

What the ITC Project may want to know – and what the government would do well to acknowledge – is that support for tobacco control may be high, but that that does not mean that we are willing to send fellow citizens to jail for possessing small amounts of tobacco.