Bhutan wants to be smoke-free
By DANIEL LAK
Special to The Globe and Mail
Globe and Mail, Tuesday, November 26, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A15
THIMPHU, BHUTAN -- They have cited ancient Buddhist scriptures. They've pointed to a centuries-old law banning smoking in public. And now officials in Bhutan are considering what many once thought impossible: They want their Himalayan kingdom to become the world's first nation to ban the sale of tobacco.
Long known for its pioneering public policies, from outlawing plastic bags to requiring tourists to spend a minimum of $200 (U.S.) a day, Bhutan's royal government believes it can soon extend a tobacco ban to every corner of the isolated country. The prohibition already applies to more than 90 per cent of the kingdom.
"We're opening up to help our young people cope in the 21st century, and the tobacco ban is also for them," said Bhutan's Health Minister Sangay Ngedup, who likes to quote medieval lamas opposed to smoking. "I hope they heed our advice."
In a country that is smaller than New Brunswick, 18 of Bhutan's 20 districts have voted to ban cigarette sales entirely. Only the capital, Thimphu,remains a safe zone for smokers.
"It's not smoking that's illegal. It's selling tobacco in any form," said Pem Dorji, governor of Wangdi district and father of the antismoking drive.
Mr. Dorji, who was a pack-a-day smoker at the time, enacted Bhutan's first modern ban on tobacco sales in 1992 when he was governor of the eastern district of Bumthang. Anyone caught selling cigarettes or chewing tobacco was fined and forced to watch officials burn the inventory.
Mr. Dorji's efforts were soon copied by most district administrations as local democracy spread in the 1990s at the behest of the reforming monarch, King Jigme Singyme Wangchuck.
"It's our religion, our tradition," Mr. Dorji said. "Good Buddhists shouldn't smoke."
Just five kilometres from his office in Wangdi, however, is the border with Thimphu district, the final frontier for Bhutan's anticigarette campaign. Around the small but bustling capital region, Buddhists -- good or otherwise -- can buy all the cigarettes they want from roadside shops that sell tobacco products to truck drivers, and to the odd resident who comes furtively down the road from the surrounding mountains to indulge in an illicit smoke.
"It's my health, my right to damage it," said a man in Jaycee's pool hall in Thimphu, where cigarette smoke hangs over the snooker tables and overflowing ashtrays line the windowsills.
Declining to give his name, the man, a Hindu of Nepalese origin, grumbled about the Buddhist majority imposing its views on other groups. "I like to smoke, and no one will stop me," he said. "Just look at our neighbouring countries: India and China, hundreds of millions of smokers, billions of cigarettes. We'll get them here one way or another."
Gabo Tshering, Bhutan's public health director, who is responsible for a large advertising campaign against smoking, agreed that a full nationwide ban might be difficult to impose. Smuggling from India, where most of Thimphu's cigarettes are produced, would be almost guaranteed.