Bhutan: Criminalizing The Use Of Tobacco Stirs Outrage

A smoker in Bhutan may be imprisoned for smoking without a receipt. Image by Flickr user Juank Madrigal. CC BY-NC-SA

The New Year is here, and with it has come new problems for the Bhutanese.

Starting this month the Bhutanese government has put into “serious practice” its draconian “Tobacco Control Act,” which was enacted on June 1, 2009. According to this act, any citizen in defiance can be charged with a fourth degree felony that can fetch a prison term of 5 – 9 years.

Although this should be more of a hindrance to smokers and businessmen, even citizens who don’t smoke are beginning to question the number of bans infringing on their privacy and freedom, and the misplaced emphasis on cigarettes rather than alcohol and drugs. Truth, a commenter on Tshering Tobgay's blogpost titled “Parliament passes Tobacco Control Bill” says:

It is like beating a dead horse. It is okay to make a mistake once, everyone does, but not to learn from mistake is a sign of foolishness. Simply putting people in jail and banning tobacco is not going to help anyone, jail can be used for worse criminals. The government can make money while regulating tobacco if they just tax them. Use the tax money to create awareness and educate people on tobacco. Banning tobacco is only creating more black markets and those benefits no one, except create more criminals. I understand that DPT votes on party lines, but where did the brain of National Council members go. This is simply frustrating. I wish members of both uppper and lower house develop some brains. When something does not work, it means try different things… Albert Einstein said, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This is what out lawmakers are.

Just yesterday BusinessBhutan tweeted “Authorities will raid drayangs & discotheques today evening to ensure the compliance to the new tobacco control rules” . Nothing unfamiliar. In 2005, Bhutanese legislators had banned sales of all tobacco products ostentatiously becoming the first nation in the world to take smoking bans way further than the rest. Bhutanese officials seemed to welcome and gloat in international media coverage for having done so. At that time authorities even burned stashes of tobacco products worth millions of Ngultrums legitimately purchased.

Kuensel reported that according to the new Act, a Bhutanese above 18 years of age is allowed to import 200 sticks of cigarettes or 30 pieces of cigars, or 150g of other tobacco products a month.

They will be charged 200 percent sales tax and customs duty for tobacco products originating from countries other than India and 100 percent on those from India.

When the items are declared at Customs, the person will be issued a receipt reflecting the details of his import and his identity. The receipt will be valid for a month from date of issue and the person will have to have the receipt of him at the time of smoking – in case he is asked by the law to produce validity.

Which leaves you wondering about the logistics of how this can be implemented. The ban on smoking and cigarette sales that arose in 2005 became largely ineffective, for reasons that it was an ill-thought and impractical process, which in turn became something of an embarrassment in the end rather than something to be proud of when people were still found puffing away to glory.

And how popular is this Act? While it does have health benefits, voices on online forums point out the fallacy of such a law.

Under the thread “Tobacco and Receipts” on, an online forum where Bhutanese give vent to their feelings on issues mostly under pseudonyms, this was the discussion:

Kokariko said:

Reminds me of an old Woody Allen film “Bannanas” in which a freedom fighter who becomes a dictator as soon as he gets power decides to promote cleanliness. So he says all his people must change their underwear regularly. But how is the government going to check that this new law is followed, he is asked. In order for the government to monitor this, everyone must wear their underwear over their trousers.

Raksha dared the govt:

I challenge the government on how they are going to implement such a law without 101 complications at best.

While Number_Uno said:

we are a nation being repeatedly treated like a classroom.

But Drupkinley thought of more dire consequences:

I think it will be easier for the Narcotics Board to issue an ID card for the smokers with receipt No. on it. Otherwise a situation may arise between a smoker and the inspector, which could escalate into a gruesome ending, where the offender may have to go to jail not because of a PUFF but murder.

And Migyel questioned the reasoning for this law:

Today, alcohol kills more people in Bhutan than any other things followed by reckless driving. Could government not focus on the alcohol control rather than tobacco?

But where this is a will there is a way. Blankslate said:

Create a black-market and give gangs a way to finance themselves… Nice going government!

Although black markets always exist for banned products, what need to create an extreme one for Tobacco products?

yes, a blackmarket not just for cigarettes but also for revenue and custom receipt books! The policeman on the street has no way of distinguishing fake receipts from genuine ones if the receipt is printed in the same press with the same quality as the original. This solution will `validate` all the illegal cigarettes that are definitely going to enter the country now that it has made it dearer….the hawala method of funds transfer which by nature is a paperless, identity-less system of payments…can be used, with the help of faceless middlemen, to deliver payments and pick up cigarettes at a moment`s notice, along with a fake receipt. Who knows, with the integrity of our customs officials suspicious at best, the receipts may even be originals!

wrote someone named Economist.

In the end Chhoeki had a simple suggestion which might have been the way to go:

What the Government really needs to do is:
1. prohibit smoking in public designated areas and ACTUALLY enforce this rule.
2. place high tax on import/sale of tobacco products rather than make it illegal to sell them. This would increase the price of tobacco products, and I am certain that the demand would actually go down. The government would also be able to generate additional revenue.


  • Rick Stewart

    This is the kind of law making causing people like that poor guy in Arizona to go over the edge and start shooting. When are law makers going to realize people have limits, beyond which they give up and pick up guns?

    ‘liberal’ (I refuse to use a capital ‘L,’ because it denigrates the original meaning of the word – people in favor of liberty) thinking is so shallow and naive they think laws such as this make the world a better place. What they don’t realize is many people, probably most people, just want to be left alone to do their own thing, whether it is ‘dangerous,’ ‘unhealthy,’ ‘sinful,’ or in any other way deviates from the behavior the liberal thinker things is best.

    liberals – get a clue! Your way of governing is dangerous!

  • […] still want to smoke privately are allowed to import 200 cigarette “sticks” a month from neighboring countries such as India, although […]

  • […] illegal in Bhutan?Not quite yet. Citizens who still want to smoke privately are allowed to import 200 cigarette “sticks” a month from neighboring countries such as India, although they must have customs paperwork to prove they […]

  • NM

    Try this on for size: SUICIDE. It’s illegal, yet what do you think smoking is? a slow, deliberate, legally sanctioned suicide. You’re less likely to die smoking marijuana, yet that’s been insanely criminalized! An even better contrast; Tobacco=over 300 toxins, marijuana=1 toxin. Tobacco=kills more people with cancer than every other cancer-causing agent, marijuana=given to suffering cancer patients and a treatment for cataracts. Tobacco=only good for smoking and native rituals, marajuana=makes paper, clothing, rope, cleaning supplies, and more. The fact is tobacco is doing nothing but causing death and lung damage worldwide, while marijuana is helping the suffering and can be used for much more than just smoking and rituals!
    Does criminalizing tobacco really sound so bad now? Tobacco should go and marijuana should replace it! (under the same laws as alcohol as it has similar effects)

  • […] illegal in Bhutan? Not quite yet. Citizens who still want to smoke privately are allowed to import 200 cigarette “sticks” a month from neighboring countries such as India, although they must have customs paperwork to prove they […]

  • karma

    Those going against, try little harder not to smoke and you will come to appreciate very soon. I do not understand these people who are still opposing when government comes to their rescue giving new lease of healthy life. Wouldn’t you guys be happy and proud getting to live longer, seeing no smokers in the country and fresh air to breath wherever you go. Although the punishment is little harsher for doing illegal transaction, decision has noble intention and try learning to respect the good cause.

    • should i be happy when the govt does things that are good for me? if you are so happy then I am sure you will not make a fuss if the govt next bans phaksha (stroke risk), cokes and candies (diabetes risk), wakes you up in the morning at 6am everyday for a morning jog (good for your heart) etc etc. there’s a line that cannot be crossed and that line has already been crossed with the draconian tobacco act. and I say this as a non-smoker, just in case you are wondering. I say this as a citizen of a democracy where individual rights are important.

  • Nikolis Miners

    You’re an idiot. This topic is on 1 thing that is killing millions daily. Fat, out-of-shape people are in better health than smokers. Hell, marijuana smokers are in better health! AND THAT’S ILLEGAL! THERE GOES YOUR ARGUMENT RIGHT THERE! You are defending something that kills millions and comparing it to something that kills far less and is easier to overcome Seriously, 2 of the most harmful substances to humans is legal (tobacco & alcohol ) while the far less harmful alternative is illegal (marijuana). This topic is for those with common sense, get some and reply. You should be ashamed of yourself, especially being a non-smoker!

  • Mr. Miners, you can make your point without having to call people names. Since you’ve brought that up, I don’t know who the bigger idiot is here. You’ve totally missed the point.

    Nobody denies that smoking is bad (some hate cigarettes more than others, some love it. Clearly you hate it) I am sure you have a preference for some things over others too. Do you like eating meat? It has harmful implications on the environment and your health too. Should we ban it? I think so because it violates many more things than cigarettes and it is also inhumane – eating another animal. Should I become a legislator should I pass a law that says eating meat is illegal and if you eat over a certain amount or exceed the pounds that you are allowed to consume, you should go to prison for 3+ years?
    That would certainly be my preference.

    But this is NOT about individual preferences. This is about the abuse of govt power, overreaching laws that imprison people for not having receipts and equating the sentences to that of other criminal activities.

    Whether smoking kills or not it is up to the smoker to decide that. Whether you equate it to suicide or not (there is that whole debate on legalizing euthanasia going on right now) is not the point. The point is where do you draw the line?

    There are certain things that are harmful to society like drugs. But experts can tell you that they have found that criminalizing addicts does not work.

    Govt’s can make laws to discourage people from doing things without infringing on their individual rights like preferences to what they consume. Right now society has drawn the line with drugs for certain reasons that it impairs thinking and affects crime. I have never heard of a smoker stealing because he smokes, or beating his wife and children because he got high on tobacco.

    To the contrary I think it is people like you who should be ashamed of over-reaching and extending what you personally think is good or not good for people and condoning imprisonment and punishment because of “your” preference.

    Good try making me feel ashamed.

  • Any law which violates the inalienable rights of man is essentially unjust and tyrannical; it is not a law at all
    ———————————Maximilien Robespierre

  • Garas

    Government need to have proper priority in list. Road accidents have killed more than 15 people in the month of december 2011. Had there been proper rescuing system than spending hell lot of time in parliament (rather than getting some sitting allowance of passing some bullshit laws) its better if they could spend some better time in discussing how to control such rampant plague of ill social management.

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