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Last Updated: Monday, 28 February, 2005, 17:12 GMT
Bhutan's smokers face public ban

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Bhutan

Thimphu's markets
Thimphu's markets are no longer the place to buy tobacco
A nationwide ban on smoking in public places comes into effect from Tuesday in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

The country was the first in the world to impose a nationwide ban on the sale of tobacco products back in December.

According to a notification from the ministry of trade and industry, the decision to ban smoking in public places has been made "to protect the present and future generations from the devastating consequences of tobacco use".

Bhutan's Health Secretary Dr Sangay Thinley told the BBC: "The use of tobacco is not so enormous, but with the changing times, we felt that the smoking trend was growing.

"So we thought we'd do something immediate. We know what a problem this is worldwide - the number of people tobacco kills every day."

But more than two months after the ban on tobacco sales, cigarettes and tobacco products are still widely available and consumed.

Traditional society

It is midnight at the Fusion bar in the capital, Thimphu.

Bhutan's Health Secretary Dr Sangay Thinley
If it becomes difficult to get tobacco and they have to pay more, it may motivate people to give up smoking
Dr Sangay Thinley,
health secretary

Groups of young men and women cluster around tables, letting their hair down over cans of Tiger beer and shots of Smirnoff vodka.

Dimmed lights and thick cigarette smoke give the place an unreal feel.

Bhutan is a very traditional society and most people here still wear the traditional dress - knee-length, skirt-like robes called gho for men and long skirts known as kira for women.

But tonight most of those present at the bar are dressed in jeans and body-hugging T-shirts.

And amid raucous laughter comes a show of defiance.

"I'm a smoker and I will always be a smoker," says Anuj.

Anuj owns a bar and restaurant in Thimphu.

He says he started smoking when he was 14, mostly to impress girls.

Today, he's 36 and smokes at least 20 cigarettes a day.

But how has he fared since the sale of tobacco was banned in Bhutan two and a half months ago?

"I'm not affected," he says. "I stocked up before the ban. I'll need to buy only when I run out of cigarettes. You could call me a smart smoker," he laughs.


The penalty for those flouting the ban on tobacco sales is 10,000 ngultrums ($200). The shops also stand to lose their licence.

I have to be careful. If I get caught, I'll lose my licence. But the profit margin is now good
Cigarette seller

But the official ban on the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products has driven the market for the products underground.

Phuntso Wangde, a resident of Thimphu, says cigarettes are still available.

"It's become more difficult, they are not as readily available. But I get it from some people I know.

"They know I'm a smoker so they sell it to me. But now it's more expensive. A pack of cigarettes that earlier cost 30 ngultrums now costs 40."

I go to Thimphu's main shopping avenue, Norzin Lam, looking for someone who still sells tobacco.

In between the stores that sell woollen jackets, jumpers and long socks for men are tiny window shops that sell candies and various other assorted items.

This is where most people bought their tobacco before the ban.

Most take one look at me and say they don't have any cigarettes.

But the owner of one window shop agrees to speak to me on the condition that he will not be identified.

"It's very risky now. Lots of people come looking for tobacco but I sell only to the people I know. I have to be careful. If I get caught, I'll lose my licence," he says. "But the profit margin is now good."

Community responsibility

Despite a flourishing black market in tobacco products, the health ministry in Bhutan is quite confident that the ban on the sale of tobacco products and now on smoking in public places will have a positive impact.

Children in Thimphu
The ban is to "protect past and future generations", say ministers

The health secretary, Dr Thinley, says the ultimate goal is to have a healthy, tobacco-free Bhutan.

"If we can restrict supply, it may help people take a decision. They know it's bad for their health and if it becomes difficult to get tobacco and they have to pay more, it may motivate people to give up smoking."

Dr Thinley says there will be no penalties for those who light up in public. And it will be left to the community to discourage the offenders.

His job may be made easier by the fact that he has many supporters on the streets of Thimphu.

Most people say the government's decision is right.

At the Fusion bar, the smokers continue to light up.

They say they know the ban will apply to this bar too, but they shrug it off, saying they've managed to deal with the ban on sales.

Now, they say, they'll just have to deal with the latest ban too.

As one of them said to me, if someone wants to smoke, they will.

But many say it is not really an issue as smoking is confined to Thimphu and other small towns - and even here it is not widespread.

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