I have watched Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, change from an agricultural village with a few shops selling basic necessities to a modern city. These days, one can buy almost anything in Thimphu. Except tobacco.
Bhutan is the first country in the world to ban the sale of tobacco. This does not mean that the Bhutanese don’t smoke, chew or sniff, but that people who indulge in such pleasures pay a heavy price. Bhutanese narcotic laws allow the use of tobacco only if bought while outside the country. Imports are limited to 200 cigarettes, with an additional tax of 200%. Anyone found carrying or consuming tobacco without proof of having paid the tax, and who refuses to reveal his illicit source, will be punished.
Bhutanese sentiments towards tobacco can be traced back to 8th-century Guru Rinpoche, who is still revered by all as the second Buddha. Guru Rinpoche once prophesied about the evils of a certain plant, which is believed to be tobacco, so many consider tobacco use “sinful.” Yet, tobacco –although much newer than alcohol- is not new to Bhutan. More than fifty years ago, I was intrigued to see my mother curing tobacco leaves for my father’s hand-rolled cigarettes, whereas brewing alcohol was mundane.
Exposure to global habits and culture has increased tobacco and alcohol consumption here in the last 30 years. This has caused serious concerns among religious believers who see smoking as sinful, but there is no religious stigma against alcohol. Any health concerns about tobacco use have just piggybacked on these religious arguments.
My father, a religious man, could never reconcile his Buddhist faith with his smoking. I have never developed a taste for smoking and I resent my daughter smoking purely for health reasons.
A regulation banning the sale of tobacco received so much positive publicity, both nationally and internationally, that advocates were encouraged to push further. In 2011, parliament introduced the Tobacco Act, which stipulated penalties for unregulated tobacco. Ironically the first offender was a monk, who was arrested and jailed for carrying US$2 worth of chewing tobacco. This is a fourth degree felony, so he will be imprisoned for three years without parole.
The Tobacco Act has become the most debated and criticized legislation passed by Bhutan’s first ever democratically elected government. Comparisons were drawn between the social cost of tobacco and that of alcohol. The media -especially new social media such as Twitter and Facebook- buzzed with passionate debate. In fact, “Amend the Tobacco Control Act” was one of the first local groups formed on Facebook.
All the heat and smoke of the tobacco issue has obscured the issue of alcohol, which is the real threat to health and society. Bhutan is said to have the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in South Asia. There are more than 4,000 bars in Bhutan, and some 600 in Thimphu alone. While the government discusses an alcohol control strategy, a few stopgap initiatives have been launched. These include stricter bar licenses and the declaration that every Tuesday will be a “dry day”.
I am amused by the fact that bars now circumvent “dry days” by serving alcohol in tea-cups. Forty years ago, as a college student in India, I drank beer out of all sorts of utensils on dry days! Nothing new or ingenious there, really.
In the meantime, parliament has amended the Tobacco Control Act. Under the amended Act, most tobacco-related offences have been reduced misdemeanor with possible bail, instead of a fourth degree felony requiring imprisonment.
Video: Dancers at Soongngyen Kalapingka Bar in Thimphu, Bhutan