Bhutan Bans Butts

Along with outlawing plastic bags and secondhand cars, Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom nestled in the clouds between China and India, has become the first country in the world to completely ban tobacco sales. Bhutan’s National Assembly imposed the crackdown last July, and the law went into effect last December.

The mountainous kingdom of Bhutan is the world"s first sovereign nation to ban public smoking.

This isolated monarchy, which allows only 7,000 tourists a year, and requires most of its citizens to wear the national dress, prides itself on its environmental policy aimed at preserving the pristine Himalayan region. But developing the no-smoking policy has been a challenge. The small country of only 700,000 people has started to develop roads and infrastructure, while dutifully preserving the countryside—almost 70 percent of which is covered in forest.

The much-admired King Jigme Singye Wangchuk implemented air-quality laws through the National Environment Commission that are aimed at decreasing year-round exposure to second-hand smoke emitted from still-rudimentary fireplaces that are used for cooking and heating in rural homes. Reconditioned and secondhand cars, which emit more pollution than new cars, have been banned in the hopes of improving air quality.

A no-smoking policy is seen as another step in the King’s plan for "gross national happiness," a goal he sees as far more important than the gross national product. Tobacco use has been declining in recent years in North America and Western Europe but increasing in Asia. More than 25 percent of the world’s smokers live across Bhutan’s border in China, according to the American Lung Association’s website.

Respiratory illnesses are the primary cause of mortality in Bhutan. "It is not the health alone; we have religious reasons," says Gado Tschering, the non-smoking secretary of the Ministry of Health. "The monks play a very important role. According to Buddhist religion it is a sin to smoke."

The problem Bhutan faces is how to enforce the no-smoking policy. There will be a hefty $225 fine for smoking in public or buying or selling tobacco. Bhutanese can bring their own tobacco into the country for use at home, but must pay a 100 percent tax on it.

According to Heather Selin, a tobacco control advisor for the World Health Organization, "Prohibition of tobacco sales and tobacco use is not a measure someone would propose. It is not practical for the vast majority of countries. Bhutan is a closed society so it is in a unique position. I would guess that they are doing this because tobacco use is low enough [an estimated one percent of the population] that smuggling is not as big an issue as in other countries."

"I personally agree with the law although I have been a smoker," says Tenzin Thinley, a resident of Thimphu, Bhutan’s most-populous city. "The moment I heard about it I decided to stop smoking and it has been possible."