As I write this now, the National Council of Bhutan is debating the Amendment to the Tobacco Control Act bill.
I was heartened to read in NC member (Gasa) Sangay Khandu’s blog that 11 members of the NC have voted to remove the ban on the sale of Tobacco in Bhutan. While this is far from the majority in a house of 25 members, the remaining members are divided in their opinion, so this is still the largest group agreeing to a certain idea. And this gives me hope.
I agree with the 11 members that removing the ban itself may be the best way forward. As a journalist, before the 3 year imprisonment law came into force, I wrote several articles exploring the ineffectiveness and pointlessness of the ban. It wasn’t working. There was a huge black market, and even after the penalties were made so harsh, there were and are, still, plenty of detractors.
A lot of people who oppose the 3 year imprisonment law still support the ban and agree that ‘smugglers’ should be punished, while we are lenient to those caught with small amounts of the contraband.
But a lot of people who were caught last year because of the infamous Act have been sellers and so called ‘smugglers’ and I saw a lot of sympathy for these people who faced the 3 years. And if a lot of people sympathize with someone who is apparently a criminal by law, then their crime must not be as heinous as the lawmakers and enforcers seem to think. After all, no one sympathizes with a murderer or a rapist.
I am not saying that sentences should be doled out depending on public perception- some countries have civilian juries who echo the opinion of the people, but I think our system is fine- as long as the laws are made to ensure that a lot of people don’t feel there has been a miscarriage of justice.
Let’s face it- tobacco is not so bad, and needlessly criminalizing people for wanting to make some money or unable to give up a bad habit is- needless. And wrong.
The Tobacco Act, as it is now, gives easy access (legally) to tobacco to people living near the border areas, and makes it very difficult for others living farther way to access the same. And obviously that leads to black market, as people are willing to patronize the illegal sellers, and shopkeepers are willing to make an extra buck when there are customers.
Let people have access to legal tobacco if they want to use it. Let some private people make some money out of it. Tax it so that the government benefits, and also to discourage people from using it by making it an expensive habit. Carry out continuous campaigning to ensure people know what they are subjecting their bodies to, and to make tobacco use look bad. Maybe even get users to pay for the free health services others can avail for certain diseases that have been proved to be as a result of tobacco use. And enforce the right of non-users to a clean, tobacco free environment- which means smoking ban in public places, no smoking in the presence of children, etc.
Tobacco is bad, and no one else should bear the costs/damages it inflicts. But everyone has a right to keep their bad habit as long as no one else is harmed by it. SO let them keep it.