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Tiny Himalayan Kingdom to Become World's First to Completely Ban Sale of Tobacco


The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, one of the most secluded countries in the world, is set to become the first country to impose a nationwide ban on the sale of tobacco products.

In less than a month the swirl of cigarette smoke may all but vanish from the pristine mountain air of the tiny country of Bhutan, tucked high in the Himalayan Mountains.

Bhutanese will still be allowed to light up if they want to, but it may become all but impossible to lay hands on a cigarette or other preparation of tobacco.

Shops, restaurants, hotels and bars in the country have been ordered to stop selling tobacco products by December 17, Bhutan's national day.

The sale of tobacco is already outlawed in 18 of the country's 20 districts. The ban will now come into effect in the capital city, Thimpu.

Kinley Dorji, editor of Bhutan's Kuensel newspaper, says that only about one percent of the country's two million people smoke, but the habit was gaining ground in urban areas like Thimpu.

"It was on the rise because with so-called development in the past 30-40 years, we have had the business community expanding and so-called urbanization, with many more people living in towns now, and it has been more visible in the town areas," he said.

The decision to stamp out smoking follows a commitment Bhutan made last year at the World Health Assembly, to become the first smoke-free country in the world.

But Bhutanese officials say their battle against tobacco is rooted in history and tradition. They say the monk who brought Buddhism into the country in the 17th century also banished tobacco from government and religious centers.

The Bhutanese government has been working to repeat that feat since 1997, after signs that tobacco consumption was on the rise and was adversely affecting people's health.

Health workers and religious leaders have been touring rural areas, explaining to people that smoking is not only bad for their health, but is also barred by religious tradition.

Now it is also being barred, or at least severely restricted, by law. Business establishments caught selling tobacco will lose their licenses. Any person selling tobacco will be slapped with a $225 fine. Those wanting to bring in stocks from outside the country will have to pay a 100 percent tax, and foreigners caught selling tobacco to locals will be charged with smuggling.

For the time being, the World Health Organization, WHO, is reserving judgment on the new Bhutanese law. Marjorie Granjon of the WHO's tobacco-free initiative in Geneva says officials want to see how the policy works.

"We are observing with great interest the implementation of such a measure, but there is no evidence for us…on such a measure right now," she said. "We are working more on an evidence based kind of perspective and that is why, for instance, we are supporting some measures such as smoking-free workplaces, smoking-free public places, etc."

Mr. Dorji, the Bhutanese editor, says the reaction to the ban in Bhutan appears to be muted. He says it is not a "big deal" in a country that never grew its own tobacco.

"It seems to me the reaction is much more outside the country than inside here because the smokers being a minority, we don't really hear too much dissent or too much protest here," he explained. "The few smokers, of course, would be a little disappointed, their main problem being those who continue to smoke might have to buy it in the black market and pay more."

For now, smokers are reported to be stocking up on cigarettes already in the country, and prices have risen since the ban was announced this week.

Bhutan is a primarily rural and very devout Buddhist nation. It has kept itself largely aloof from the modern world and tried to protect its traditions and culture.

It only opened its doors to foreign visitors in the 1970's, and the number of visitors is restricted by the government. The authorities allowed television into the country just five years ago.

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