Bhutan Smokers Pay Taxes, Tobacco Control
In downtown Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, Sonam Dema – who requested her real name not be used – owns a small corner shop in a quiet alleyway. Packaged food, drinks, confectionaries and pastries are on display. On a busy afternoon, a Bhutanese man walks into the shop and orders cigarettes in a hushed tone. Dema looks around cautiously. She leans down to her handbag and pulls out a pack of 10 cigarettes. “One hundred ngultrum (about $1.87),” Dema says.
The transaction happens under the counter. The buyer slides the pack of cigarettes under his jacket and leaves in no time. “It’s illegal to sell cigarettes here. I don’t sell them to anyone I don’t know,” Dema says after her customer leaves.
Bhutan, a small Himalayan nation often called the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is the only country in the world that completely bans the sale and production of tobacco and tobacco products. Under the law, any individual found selling tobacco can face imprisonment for a period of three to five years.
But the youngster confesses that she is only doing it for financial reasons. “Look at everything in the store. Cigarettes bring more profit than anything else. I have to pay rent for this place and if I stop selling cigarettes my profits will plummet,” she says.
Bhutan, with a population of 700,000, has used an index called “Gross National Happiness” as a measure of progress. The government emphasises improving people’s happiness while relying on four pillars of development – good governance, natural environment, sustainable growth and cultural values.
The Himalayan nation has a long history of tobacco control. In 1729, it perhaps became the first country in the world to have any kind of tobacco regulation, when the supreme leader Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal passed a law against tobacco use.
“I can’t afford to pay the fine. And I don’t want to pay import duties either. Why can’t I smoke cigarettes at a normal price if I am not selling them to anyone else”
In the 1990s, many of the 20 districts of Bhutan began autonomously declaring themselves smoke-free zones. By 2004, the national assembly of Bhutan (which was then a monarchy), banned the sale of tobacco throughout the country as well as smoking in public places, private offices and even recreation centres like bars and pubs. It was lauded for being the first country in the world to go entirely smoke-free.
However, the implementation of the ban remained weak. As a response, the government passed the Tobacco Control Act in 2010, under which smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco became a non-bailable offence. Anybody in possession of tobacco could be imprisoned for a minimum of three years if the person is unable to produce a receipt declaring payment of import duties for the products.
Last year, more than 80 people were booked under the new law and nearly half of them were sent to prison. The first one to be imprisoned was Sonam Tshering, a Buddhist monk, who was caught with 180 grams of chewing tobacco worth 120 ngultrum (about $2.25).