Tobacco black market still thriving

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Though the government has been legally distributing tobacco products for some time now, some are misusing this interim measure

Though the government has legally allowed the sale of tobacco products in the country through identified outlets as an interim measure, the black market is still thriving in the country.

Bhutan Duty Free Limited (BDFL) is facilitating the sale of tobacco products in the country for people who smoke.

Cabinet Secretary Dasho Sangay Duba said that the interim measures will be open till the COVID-19 situation subsides and borders open.  “The cabinet has approved the policy to sell tobacco products through BDFL.”

However, he said they were not aware of some people re-selling tobacco products.

Currently, BDFL outlet distributes 200 sticks of cigarettes-one gum and 12 pieces  of baba to an  individual in a month.

One gum of Navy Cut Wills cigarette costs Nu 3,600 and a gum of Baba costs Nu 150 at duty free outlets.

An official from BDFL said that they have increased the quantity of cigarettes for individual quota because compared to before there is no rush of people coming at the outlets.

“In a month we are giving only one gum of cigarettes for individuals which is below permissible quantity according to the Act,” said the official.

According to the Act, an individual can import up to 800 sticks of cigarette and 75 packets of chewing tobacco.

BDFL has also identified some shop outlets in the country to facilitate to sell the tobacco products.

Currently, at the outlets a packet of Navy Cut cigarette costs around Nu 180, however in the black market a packet of it is sold at around Nu 250 to Nu 300. Once the price was hiked up to Nu 400 to Nu 450.

The government has asked to sell tobacco at the MRP with 100% tax.

However, people are misusing the government interim measure on tobacco.

Some take the identity cards of their friends and families who have not used the monthly quota and re-sell it to the other people at higher prices.

The Chief Program Officer of Bhutan Narcotics Authority (BNCA), Ugyen Tshering said that BNCA is doing routine inspection in the country on those who sell tobacco products illegally.

He said that if they encounter any shopkeepers selling tobacco products illegally they implement the tobacco act provision. They seize the licenses and impose fines as per the quantity of the products.

He also said that when the government allows the sale of tobacco products legally, people feel they can smoke in public places.

“BNCA strictly prohibits smoking in public area. If found they will be fined,” he said.

In September, BNCA apprehended 12 shops that were not duty-free and identified temporary outlets and cancelled their licenses in Thimphu. A total of Nu 41,920 was collected as fine for illegal possession of tobacco. They seized 7,110 sticks of cigarettes, 560g of baba and 15 packets of bidi.

However, the interim measure aims to curb the infections of COVID-19 which the smugglers may bring along with tobacco across the porous southern border.

Though the government has allowed sale of tobacco products through BDFL and there are few temporary outlets around the country to take orders and sell tobacco, the measure is strictly meant to cater to self-consumption and people are not allowed to re-sell the products to other people.

BDFL has also notified about the introduction of a token system even in shops from October 3 and each shop will take only 100 tokens per day on first come first serve basis. The issuing of tobacco products will be from 9am to 12pm.

However, it is definite that tobacco products sold in the black market are bought from identified outlets. Shops which sell cigarettes dodge questions on their sources.

The official from BDFL said that people who produce identity card and are eligible for monthly quota are also given the products.

“It is very difficult to keep track of who smoke and who do not,” said the official.

He said that to ensure that tobacco products are not sold in the black market, they had reduced individual monthly quota to five packets before.

Some smokers remaining anonymous said that now the price at the black markets has reduced to Nu 250 to Nu 300; earlier it used to be Nu 400 to Nu 450.

Smokers said most times they buy cigarettes from shops which they sell illegally.

“It is easier to get from shops as it is hectic to register for the token system,” said one.

Some budget smokers also said that they usually buy only one to two packets of cigarette and some buy a few sticks a day.

In October, Phuentsholing police arrested five people for trying to smuggle tobacco products worth more than Nu 500,000 from Jaigaon.

The tobacco consignment contained 150 boxes of cigarettes, bidi, and chewing tobacco.

Similarly again this month, a joint team of police, customs, officials from the Association of Bhutanese Industries, and DeSuups seized nearly Nu 3mn worth of tobacco products from the land customs station at Ahlay in Pasakha.  The seized consignment consists of 30 boxes and six sacks of chewing tobacco, 12 cartons of cigarettes, and four sacks of bidi.

Dechen Dolker from Thimphu

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