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 Sunday, 19 January, 2003, 15:57 GMT
Bhutan seeks to ban smoking
Bhutan landscape
Bhutan hopes to become the first smoke-free nation

Armed with tradition and determination, Bhutan's Government says it wants to stamp out smoking across the country - possibly becoming the first nation on earth to entirely ban tobacco use.

The tradition in the remote Himalayan kingdom dates back to the 17th Century, some say even earlier.

In the 1640s, the founder of modern Bhutan, the warrior monk Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, enacted the first-ever ban on smoking in public when he outlawed the use of tobacco in government buildings.

map of bhutan
Those who tend to believe that the prohibition on tobacco is historic include Bhutan's crusading health minister, Sangay Ngedup.

"The great saint who brought us Buddhism, Padmasambhava or Guru Rimpoche - he also said smoking was bad and no follower of Lord Buddha should smoke," says Mr Ngedup.

"He may have been referring to opium, but we feel very comfortable extending his concerns to tobacco."

The minister tells visiting journalists and health officials that it is not the government that is seeking to ban tobacco.

Local resistance

Prohibitions on smoking and chewing come from local communities, he says, and the government merely does as it is asked.

Several hours drive from the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu, over the soaring and beautiful pass, the Dochu La, you enter the district of Wangdue.

Here, as in almost every rural area of Bhutan, the sale of tobacco is totally banned.

We fine people who sell cigarettes - usually we warn them first, but only once

Thimpu district governor, Pem L. Dorji

Thimpu and its surrounds have so far resisted the ban, but there is plenty of support in small towns like Wangdue, according to the district governor or dzongdag, Pem L Dorji.

"The local business community, teachers, ordinary people, they all came to me and asked me to ban tobacco. I said, 'it's not up to me, it's your decision'.

"They drew up a bylaw and now we fine people who sell cigarettes. Usually we warn them first, but only once," he says.

One of Governor Dorji's main concerns is that a small sliver of territory in Thimpu district is only a few kilometres away from his town, and cigarettes are legally available there.

Health concerns

At the roadside just across the district border, sure enough fruit seller Chiran Subba is smoking.

But his views on the tobacco ban are surprising.

"I want them to ban these things," he says, waving the cigarette in his hand, "then I could quit - it's a filthy habit". His wife, sitting next to him, agrees and laughs at his words.

Across the road, truck drivers bound for tobacco-free districts - 18 of Bhutan's 20 districts have banned tobacco sales - stop to buy cigarettes at smoking's last redoubt.

cannabis smoking
Bhutan also has a growing cannabis problem
There is no doubt that the founder of Bhutan, Shabdrung Namgyal, might be shocked at the sight of Jaycee's pool hall in Thimpu.

Tobacco smoke hangs thickly over the green baize of the snooker tables, cigarettes droop from the corners of the player's mouths.

A man who didn't want to give his name told me what he thought of the tobacco ban.

"It's my health," he said, squinting through the smoke, "if I want to ruin it, it's my business."

He muttered something about Bhutan's government being too autocratic on some issues and went back to his game.

Doctors' warnings

At the sharp end of the drive against smoking, the Director of Health for Bhutan, Dr Gado Tshering.

As a rural physician, and now as a health official, he is alarmed by the number of young Bhutanese who he says are starting to smoke.

Should Bhutanese families be spending household money on tobacco?

Dr Gado Tshering, Director of Health for Bhutan
Bhutan produces no tobacco products of its own, so everything that people smoke or chew there is imported.

"Aside from personal health," says Dr Gado, "it all comes down to resources.

Should Bhutanese families be spending household money on tobacco? And should our small country, where health care is free for all, have to subsidise people's bad habits?"

The doctor leaves no doubt of his answer to those questions, and pledges to make his country the first smoke-free nation on earth, as soon as possible.

See also:

30 May 02 | South Asia
14 Mar 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
07 Aug 02 | Country profiles
07 Dec 02 | South Asia
29 Nov 02 | Europe
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