There was a twist to the contentious tobacco issue on Thursday with the launch of the much overdue Tobacco Control Rules and Regulations which came to force the same day. This is significant because it will now change the course of the tobacco debate.

On face value, the rule is a consolation to those campaigning to amend the Tobacco-Act.

To discuss the brighter side first, the Rule can be equated almost to a positive amendment of the Tobacco Control Act. Now, a smoker carrying a packet of cigarette will not go to jail for three to five years. The most severe penalty maybe a fine of Nu 10,000. It also means that anyone caught in possession of tobacco products of permissible quantity will only be fined the same amount.

At the designated port of entry which includes the Paro airport and the border gates, if one is caught carrying permissible quantity of tobacco products, he will not be arrested but let go with a warning. A second time offender will be fined a daily wage of one year which translates to Nu 365,000. The good news is, no one will go to prison.

Even if one is caught trying to smuggle in permissible quantity, he will be warned in writing. At the time of declaration, if one is caught with more than the permissible quantity, the excess quantity will be confiscated.  All the relaxation above is however tagged to the magic words “permissible quantity.”

If someone is caught in possession of tobacco products of more than the quantity permitted, he will be charged with a fourth degree felony and go behind bars for three to five years.

These changes are welcomed because unlike in the past, the new rule is designed to implicate only those who smuggle in tobacco products for commercial reasons.

Let’s pause here to discuss some contentious issues.

The new rule allows “diplomats and consulars” to import double the normal permissible quantity of tobacco products. Such leverage is normally given to diplomats like in the case of alcohol. But even the inflated ceiling doesn’t make sense because the diplomats and consulars are also given complete immunity from “arrest, detention or investigation or inspection of personal luggage.”

It means the quantity restriction for the high officials is just a colloquial insertion than anything else. Even if they are found importing more than the permitted quantity, they cannot even be questioned and are not liable to anything.

Giving immunity to diplomats also showcase how careful our government is to ensure that diplomats are not involved in the tobacco issue. But in a democracy, we have to also ensure that all people are privy to the same kind of privilege. If the tobacco rule is irrational enough not to be applicable to diplomats, it makes little sense to apply it for the common people.

Moreover, we are yet to see how the government defines diplomats. If it includes local diplomats, the rule is bound to attract very severe criticism.

Recent developments on the tobacco issue have also led to many questioning the legislative process of formulating and implementing effective bylaws in the country. Particularly so after the police chief issued a guideline on May 16 to deal with tobacco cases which was approved by the cabinet.

There is no doubt that the guideline by the police chief relaxes the severity of penalties as defined by the Tobacco Act and the earlier notification by the Bhutan Narcotic Control Agency. But it has left many people confused as to why the police chief had to come out with a guideline.

To complicate the matter, the cabinet endorsed the guidelines and just two weeks later the BNCA releases the Rules and Regulations which repeals all notifications and circulars issued earlier and it includes the guideline by the police chief. The guideline was in force for just 16 days. This shows how unsteadily the elected government has handled the tobacco issue.

To top it all, the new Rules also contravene section 11(c) and section 51 of the Tobacco Act.

Section 11(c) says no person in the country shall sell and buy tobacco and tobacco products and section 51 says “Any person who contravenes the provision of section 11(c) shall be punishable with misdemeanor if the source of supply is revealed. If the accused fails to disclose the source of supply, he or she shall be liable for the offence of smuggling in addition to the offence of misdemeanor.”

Under the new rules, if one is found in possession of tobacco products of permissible quantity, he will not be asked to reveal the source but will be fined Nu 10,000 and products will be confiscated.

This contravention also speaks about the desperation of the BNCA to make the act as realistic as possible. It also shows that the act needs amendment after all. Now, the lawmakers should stop pretending not to see the flaws in the act. They should amend it. The parliament session is on and it is not too late. It is indeed better late than never.

The draconian act has already put 37 people behind bars. While the new rule may not be able to free all of them, the elected government has the moral responsibility to see that the people behind bars see justice. Amending the act will be a good way to begin. This is a challenge to the conscience of our elected leaders.

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