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A commodity that could disappear soon from Bhutan
A commodity that could disappear soon from BhutanImage: DW

Strict penalties for Bhutanese smokers and tobacco sellers

January 13, 2011

Amid much criticism, the Bhutanese authorities have started to enforce strict penalties for smokers and people selling tobacco products, including hefty fines and even imprisonment.


If you're in Bhutan and found smoking without a receipt, you can go to jail, according to new rules in the Tobacco Control Act passed by the parliament in June 2010.

"Anyone who wants to use tobacco products - Bhutanese and foreigners - will be given a receipt when they declare them at customs," Sonam Tshering from the Bhutan Narcotic Control Agency told Deutsche Welle.

He added that the receipt had to be carried at all times and pointed out that the agency had "authorized officers who might come at any time and ask you to produce it if you are found smoking."

In Germany, sniffer dogs are used to detect illegal hashish - in Bhutan they'll find tobacco
In Germany, sniffer dogs are used to detect illegal hashish - in Bhutan they'll find tobaccoImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Licence to smoke

If you can produce the monthly permit issued by the Department of Revenue and Customs, you are allowed to smoke in designated areas, but anyone who cannot will be prosecuted.

"First you’ll be liable to one to three years and if you’re not able to reveal the source then in addition you’ll also be liable to three to five years imprisonment," explained Sonam Tshering.

He added that the authorities had not as yet caught anyone violating the rules, which have been in effect since January 1, 2011.

Sonam Tshering said a plan to use German sniffer dogs had deterred people from selling illegal tobacco products "because if the dog comes, the person who sells tobacco will be caught."

Many Buddhists in Bhutan believe smoking is bad for the mind and body
Many Buddhists in Bhutan believe smoking is bad for the mind and bodyImage: DW-TV

Buddhism discourages smoking

Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist and many consider smoking bad for the mind and body both from a cultural and religious point of view.

Compliance inspections carried out by the authorities have reportedly shown that a majority of Bhutan's adult population welcome the ban.

Karma Tenzin, a civil servant, thought it was "a good initiative to have such rules" in order to "control" smoking.

However, many youngsters are resistant to the ban, saying it infringes on their rights.

"The government is being really unfair to smokers, I don’t think they should do this," said Pema Yangchen, a high school student in the capital Thimphu.

Black market

Dechen Tshering, a civil servant, who used to smoke a pack a day and can now only afford "two sticks" said it was a "bad policy" for Bhutan's economy because a black market had cropped up.

Prices on the black market have shot up. A packet of Indian Wills cigarettes now costs 100-140 ngultrum, equivalent to the same amount in Indian rupees, and double what it used to cost.

Cigarettes are not openly available on Bhutan's markets
Cigarettes are not openly available on Bhutan's marketsImage: AP

Kunga Wangmo, a corporate employee who smokes regularly, said it had become difficult to get any cigarettes at all.

"The dealers don’t want to sell it because there are risks involved," she explained, adding that before the new rule, it was a lot easier to buy cigarettes from pan shops along the streets of the capital city.

Education campaign

On the part of the authorites, the emphasis in the initial stages is on advocacy and public education so that people are well aware of the rules and regulations regarding tobacco and smoking.

But if people are found violating the rules knowingly, "then we may have to deal with them according to the the law of the land," said Kinley Dorji, executive director of the Bhutan Narcotic Control Agency.

The new rules also call for all public and private institutions to be non-smoking areas. Kinley Dorji said commercial establishments such as hotels, lodging and entertainment centres were being given time to create proper smoking zones.

"We are going around and telling them to do it as soon as possible, telling them to get ready and many of them have already started," he said.

Many hotels, bars and restaurants have already put up "No Smoking" signs and strict notices banning smoking.

The ban has made life difficult for chain smokers
The ban has made life difficult for chain smokersImage: AP

Skeptics caution that implementation will fade away with time. However, Sonam Tshering was sure that given the heavy penalties, "everybody would think twice before they try to get into this illegal business."

If an ordinary low-income person is caught, it will have a huge impact on the family as well as his or her income.

"For example if a taxi driver is imprisoned for smuggling in tobacco products and if the family is dependent on him, then his family will suffer three to five years without him," explained Sonam Tshering.

Limited import allowed

Under the new rules, people are allowed to import a specified number of tobacco products for personal use in Bhutan - each person can bring in 200 cigarettes or 30 cigars or 150 grams of chewing or other tobacco products a month.

However, they have to be over 18 years old and must produce their identity card or passport. They cannot import tobacco products on behalf of someone else and are charged 200 percent tax - 100 percent sales tax and 100 percent customs duty.

Author: Sherpem Sherpa
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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