Openly selling or smoking tobacco has been highly restricted in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan since 2010. But now the government has begun selling tobacco directly to smokers as part of an unconventional strategy aimed at fighting a more pressing problem: Covid-19.
Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, a medical doctor by profession, recently blamed tobacco smuggling for propelling the deadly virus. Even with borders closed and visitors prohibited from Bhutan, the tobacco black market has carried on.
Where that has been reduced, nicotine-deprived smokers have flocked to the border with India to get cigarettes. As virus cases have spiked in India, concerns have grown that the virus will return with the tobacco.
Dr. Tshering said that left his government with no other choice other than to sell tobacco products on its own to rein in movement to the border. In recent weeks, the government has been establishing duty-free outlets selling cigarettes in the capital, Thimphu, and other places.
In mid-August, Namgay Tshering, the finance minister, also announced a government program that would bring “tobacco products to your doorstep.” Both measures have been described as temporary.
Bhutan, a Buddhist nation of around 750,000 people, has recorded fewer than 230 coronavirus cases and no related deaths. Recently, loaders working at Phuentsholing, a major Bhutan-India border point, tested positive for coronavirus, reinforcing the difficulties of controlling transmission across a porous border.
Reporting was contributed by Ben Casselman, Nicholas Fandos, Emma G. Fitzsimmons, Antonella Francini, Ruth Fremson, Matthew Futterman, Michael Gold, Javier C. Hernández, Andrew E. Kramer, Isabella Kwai, Mark Landler, Ruth Maclean, Apoorva Mandavilli, Heather Murphy, Jack Nicas, Benjamin Novak, Richard C. Paddock, Monika Pronczuk, Roni Caryn Rabin, Adam Rasgon, Matt Richtel, Campbell Robertson, Frances Robles, Christopher F. Schuetze, Eliza Shapiro, Bhadra Sharma, Dera Menra Sijabat, Natasha Singer, Kaly Soto, Eileen Sullivan, Lucy Tompkins, Maura Turcotte, Neil Vigdor, Allyson Waller, Timothy Williams, Katherine J. Wu, Liu Yi, Elaine Yu and Albee Zhang.