Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s decision to ban tobacco products starting December 13 seems to have overlooked the ineffectiveness of supply-side policies in addressing public health concerns. Tobacco is a nicotine-heavy addictive substance, and the World Health Organization has urged nations to treat addiction as a disease, not a crime. While the intention behind this move may be noble, it is important to critically examine whether prohibition is truly a good policy choice.

KMC Health Department Chief Ram Prasad Poudel has stated that the selling, storage, and use of all tobacco products packaged in plastic shall be fully prohibited in all the wards from December 13. “We have tried awareness programs and campaigns in the past, and this is a form of last resort to reduce tobacco usage,” he said in a comment to Aawaaj News. “From December 13th onwards, their sale, storage, and use is found, then it will be seized and stores may be shut down”

The decision by Kathmandu to ban tobacco products may seem like a step in the right direction toward promoting public health. However, upon closer examination, this policy may not be a good approach to addressing the issue of tobacco consumption. Supply-side policies, such as prohibition, have historically proven to be ineffective, especially against addictive substances. The United States’ failed attempt at alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, or its war on drugs starting in the 70s had created a parallel market, commonly called a black market, for these products. In the end, the war on drugs has only resulted in the rise of powerful drug cartels and increased violence. Bhutan banned tobacco products, however, smuggling and a black market for tobacco was still rampant there. Tobacco use in Bhutan did not decrease significantly, with a tobacco use prevalence of 24.8% and 23.9% 2014 and 2019 respectively.

Addictive substances have an inelastic demand among consumers, as they are not likely to quit that easily. This ban will only divert tax revenue that initially would have gone to the government, now to the groups operating in a more lucrative black market. These groups would no doubt charge a large premium for the same products, which means people addicted to these substances will have to pony up more cash in order to purchase them, diverting the money that could otherwise be spent on more productive or beneficial purchases and again into the pockets of criminal syndicates. Additionally, the policy may even be rendered moot by people going to nearby administrative areas within the valley to use tobacco products. However, since this may not always be plausible, a black market will likely still exist within KMC.

While this is, in no way advocating for the use of tobacco products, it is important to explore the complicated incentives of policies when formulating them. To enforce this policy, more resources will be needed by the metropolitan police and other authorities, which means less focus on policies that aim to reduce the overall long-term demand for these substances – which have historically proven to be more effective. Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs has shown that a more progressive approach focused on harm reduction and treatment is far more effective than punitive measures. New Zealand implemented a progressive policy of banning cigarettes for the next generation. These differences in the policy can have a huge impact on their effectiveness, and although we have examples of nations using historically effective policies, KMC still opted for the historically disproven one.

Instead of implementing blanket bans, it would be more prudent for Kathmandu to invest in comprehensive tobacco control strategies that include education, awareness campaigns, and access to smoking cessation programs. By addressing the root causes of tobacco addiction and providing support for those who want to quit smoking, better long-term results could be achieved without resorting to extreme measures.