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04 September
Bhutan lifts the ten-year-old ban on tobacco due to pandemic

The remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, known for embracing a gross national happiness index and outlawing television before 1999, has now made the unusual decision to reverse a ban on the sale of tobacco, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision comes even though smoking is considered a sin in the mostly Buddhist country, where a tobacco control law was first passed in 1729 and the plant is believed to have grown from the blood of a female demon.

The country of about 750,000 banned the sale, manufacture, and distribution of tobacco in 2010 but allowed smokers to import controlled amounts of tobacco products after paying hefty duties and taxes - sparking a thriving black market for cigarettes smuggled over the border from India.

When Bhutan closed its frontier with India earlier this year because of the coronavirus pandemic - India has more than 3 million confirmed cases, while Bhutan has fewer than 200 - under-the-counter tobacco prices soared fourfold as the traffickers found it harder to get into the country.

Some continued to sneak in, however, and on Aug. 12 a Bhutanese worker handling goods coming in from India tested positive for coronavirus in the border town of Phuentsholing.

This prompted a rethink by the government of Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, a qualified doctor who still practices at weekends.

His administration lifted the decade-old ban to temper demand for the smuggled cigarettes and, in theory, lessen the risk of cross-border contagion.

Tshering insists the reversal is temporary.

The decision allows smokers to buy tobacco products from state-owned duty-free outlets and adds them to the list of essential products available in the country's pandemic lockdown.

Source: The Korea Times