Monday, July 13, 2009

Ban the ban

There has been much ado about the tobacco ban in recent years.

Apart from the international limelight Bhutan saw itself in, nothing much has come out of it. From the ineffectiveness of the ban to the kick-start of a booming black market, we’ve seen it all.

And now, finally, our parliamentarians are seeing it too.

The 82nd session of the National Assembly’s resolution to butt in on a contentious issue as personal as smoking, without a pre-ban analysis, hasn’t achieved its objective. The ban has neither cut down on the number of smokers nor has it put in place a sound system of both vigilance and enforcement.

Now, four and a half years later, the country struggles to remember what the purpose of the ban was in the first place. Things look pretty much the same as they did on December 16, 2004 – a day before the tobacco ban was imposed. The country hasn’t given up on its longtime addiction. It still looks longingly for that pack of smokes and reaches for it.

Tobacco is still available in all the places it used to be before the ban. Only the price has doubled or quadrupled as is the case in more remoter dzongkhags.

The only reminder that the ban exists is a few seizures along the check points every now and then. Unfortunately, the lucre of making a hundred percent or more makes the risk more than worth it even though the dealers stand to lose their business licenses if caught.

The National Council deciding to impose a high tax on those who sell tobacco products if the ban is lifted will benefit the government better. So far, it has only led to the improvement in the underground economy of those involved in the racket.

In nearly five years, Bhutan hasn’t benefited from the ban, and revoking it will not make the situation any different from how it already is. If we haven’t been able to get fiercely firm about it, the right thing to do now is to get rid of it.

And the lesson we can learn is not to do things in haste. First, the use of plastic was banned in the interest of the environment. But it is still available in most shops making a complete mockery of the ban. Then it was tobacco, a noble issue gone up in smoke.

Let us no longer be the butt of lingering jokes, when it doesn’t hold any water, like this one written by a foreign journalist, . “If you're indignant that your boss just shut the smoking room and outraged that you have to leave the bar to light up, take heart. Life could be worse. You could be Bhutanese.”


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