Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom that takes pride in living by a pristine set of values, began its second attempt to ban the sale of tobacco and tobacco products this month by enacting legislation that makes it illegal to buy or sell cigarettes in the country.
On June 1, the national assembly passed the Tobacco Control Bill 2009. This time around, the Bhutan government is earnest in seeking to implement the controls on tobacco and tobacco products.
In December 2004, the national assembly had adopted a law banning the sale of tobacco and all tobacco products. It attracted international attention and Bhutan was lauded for becoming the first nation to ban tobacco. Bonfires of cigarette packets were burnt in Thimphu and an energetic campaign was launched on the hazards of tobacco use.
However, the ban remained largely ineffective, causing some embarrassment to the government and resulting in a thriving black market in cigarette sales. Last year, the national legislature decided to lift the ban on tobacco.
According to Health Minister Lyonpo Zangley Dukpa, a lot of debate has gone into drafting the Tobacco Control Bill.
“The new bill was thoroughly deliberated among health professionals before it was brought to parliament. The bill was for over two and a half years in the making and was discussed three times in the national assembly. When it came up before the joint sitting of parliament, it was adopted with 61 votes for the bill and four votes against it,” he said.
The ministry is now working on rules and regulations for controlling the use of tobacco. The bill provides for three to five years of imprisonment for those convicted of violating the law.
While there would be a ban on selling and buying tobacco products in the country of nearly 700,000 people, smokers would be allowed to import cigarettes for their own use under a special permit. Tourists would also be able to indulge in their smoking habit by getting their travel agents to obtain import permits in their name.
In the 1960s and 1970s, about 50 percent of people in urban areas were smokers. But an aggressive campaign stressing on the health aspects and the religious taboo against smoking among Buddhists helped reduce the incidence of smoking, especially in rural areas.
However, exposure to television, consumerism and modernisation had led many young people to take up smoking in recent years, while in the rural areas it is chewing tobacco or khaini which is still prevalent among the older folk. In a survey carried out in Thimphu in 2007, it was found that out of 100 people, six smoked. And cigarettes are available under the table at many places.
Not everyone is convinced that the ban will work. During the debate on the bill, Leader of Opposition Tshering Tobgay said: “The new bill is confusing because it allows the consumption of tobacco but restricts the sale of tobacco. And the penalty is too severe for the offence.”
Prison sentences are usually based on the value of the smuggled product but the new bill provides the same punishment for selling a pack of cigarettes as smuggling in a consignment of tobacco products, he added.
The debate after the bill was passed has revolved around whether the government would be able to effectively implementing the ban.
Opinion is divided on the issue in Thimphu. A non-smoker asked why the free health service should bear the costs of treating smoking-related medical problems.
But the young men and women sitting in a smoke-filled pub in Thimphu had a different take on the situation. One young man thought that the ban would lead to “a hike in the price of cigarettes” while his friend opined that the severe penalty would force many like him to “give up the smoke stick”.
The Himalayan kingdom, in spite of modernising, has after all been different from the rest of the world in many spheres of life, be it being environment conscious or measuring happiness.
Down the ages, the Bhutanese have maintained a simple and peaceful way of life infused with a dose of spirituality — committed to sane and sustainable growth in contrast to the materialistic web of life in the rest of the world. They have a unique metric to measure development, the Gross National Happiness.
Perhaps that is why the government has forsaken millions of dollars it would otherwise collect in terms of tobacco taxes.