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Bhutan To Be First Nation To Outlaw Tobacco

by Suman K Chakrabarti

Big Tobacco Bribes Undermines World Restriction
(IPS) -- Smoking will soon be forbidden in Bhutan, the 'Land of the Thunder Dragon' that has set itself the goal of becoming the first nation to introduce a complete ban on tobacco use.

The sale of tobacco and tobacco products has already been banned from the beginning of this month in the duty-free outlets in this Himalayan kingdom of 900,000 people, as part of its continuing tobacco-free initiative programme.

To the dismay of the owner of the only duty-free shop here in the capital, further sales will be allowed only to exhaust the remaining stock of a hundred or so crates of imported cigarette brands like Marlboro and Benson and Hedges.

Last year the outlet sold $12,800 worth of imported cigarettes -- this is only one measure of consumption in a country, where the World Health Organization (WHO) says they are no accurate figures available for actual prevalence of tobacco use. Smoking, chewing and snuffing, however, are common.

Sangay Thinley, secretary in the Ministry of Health and Education, told IPS that the ban "basically addresses the issue of supply reduction of tobacco and tobacco products of which the duty-free outlets were one of the suppliers".

The ban was a priority issue in the country's Ninth Plan and easy to carry out because as Thinley, a medical doctor, explained: "Bhutan produces no tobacco products of its own so everything that people smoke or chew is imported."

Thinley expects that Bhutan's example would be cue for other countries to follow suit. "There is already negotiation among other countries that the same ban [on tobacco in duty free outlets] might be imposed."

Dr. Gado Tshering, director of health for Bhutan, who pledges to make his country the first smoke-free nation on earth, said: "It is impossible for a small country like Bhutan, where health care is free for all, to subsidize people's bad habits."

There is also a religious justification for the ban in this staunchly Lamaist Buddhist kingdom. "Padmasambhava or Guru Rimpoche, the great saint who brought us Buddhism, also said smoking was bad and that no follower of Lord Buddha should smoke," insists Bhutan's crusading health minister, Sangay Ngedup.

Exactly how prevalent smoking was in the time of Padmasambhava, an Indian monk who introduced Buddhism in Bhutan and adjacent Tibet in the 8th century, is a matter of speculation but a minor detail in the present drive to get rid of the noxious weed.

However, the anti-smoking tradition does have known history stretching back to the 17th century when the warrior monk Shabdrun Ngawang Namgyal, who founded modern Bhutan, outlawed the use of tobacco in government buildings.

Almost completely cut off for centuries while fiercely guarding its ancient Buddhist traditions, Bhutan, which lies between giant neighbors China and India, began to open up to outsiders in the 1970s. Entry however is restricted to high-value tourists.

Authorities in Bhutan say that the decision to ban the sale and use of tobacco was also prompted by the growing use of cannabis (marijuana or hemp) among young people, who remove the tobacco from cigarettes, mix it with cannabis leaves, reload and light up.

The cannabis plant thrives in remote and secluded Bhutan and is widely available all over the country, but it is only recently that the country's small population have begun to take notice of its psychotropic uses.

Dr. Rinchen Chopel, the country's joint director of health care, says most people grew up with it and nobody took much notice of it -- except to feed to animals like pigs.

"But in the last few years, especially in the last couple of years, the entire scenario has changed drastically. The priority now was to burn as many cannabis plants as possible and give counselling to young people who want to stop smoking the drug," he says.

Some residents in Thimpu are skeptical about the success of the ban.

"A ban on imported cigarettes will be ineffective as long as brands from neighboring India and Nepal are readily available in the market," a local journalist from the state-run Bhutan Broadcasting Service said.

Although 18 of the 20 districts in the country have declared themselves tobacco-free, there are few places where one cannot buy cigarettes in Bhutan. According to the journalist, "there is a vibrant and lucrative under-the-counter tobacco trade in all the tobacco-free districts".

"Ask any shopkeeper, and he will tell you that the staff of Druk Air, the country's national carrier, are their second line of suppliers. Revenue and customs officials acknowledge this illicit tobacco trade, but they are happy with their share of the profit," he says.

Such allegations do not deter authorities at the Health Ministry, who insist that the goal to make Bhutan the world's first tobacco-free nation will be achieved in a short time.

The Health Ministry is drawing up a multi-pronged strategy involving the creation of smoke-free work places, adopting effective demand- reduction measures, intensifying advocacy, public education, dissemination of information on hazards of tobacco, and conducting research to establish a national database on issues related to tobacco.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has praised Bhutan for successful tobacco control and promotion of healthy life styles, tobacco is responsible for the maximum number of preventable deaths in the world.

The current global figure is 4 million and this figure is projected to shoot to 10 million annually in the next 25 to 30 years.

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Albion Monitor March 5, 2003 (

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