The thunder dragon exhales its last puff as Bhutan bans smoking

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The Independent US

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has issued a ban on smoking in all public places. Coming just two months after a ban on the sale of tobacco products, the new law means that Bhutan now has the toughest anti-smoking laws in the world.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has issued a ban on smoking in all public places. Coming just two months after a ban on the sale of tobacco products, the new law means that Bhutan now has the toughest anti-smoking laws in the world.

The irony is that, even as smoking bans are becoming fashionable in the liberal West, it is an absolute monarchy with a reputation for human rights abuses that is leading the way.

The new law bans smoking in "all places where people gather". It specifically mentions parks, nightclubs, football grounds, shops, bars, restaurants, government offices and even vegetable markets. There will be no areas exempt from the ban after the law by the governing Council of Ministers comes into effect.

Bhutan has in recent years become a highly fashionable destination, seen as a sort of last frontier. But behind the breathless tourist blurb, the "land of the thunder dragon" is also a deeply repressive society.

Strict laws regulate the minutiae of daily life in order to preserve traditional Bhutanese culture. Television and the internet were only allowed in six years ago. There is also a darker side to this Himalayan Shangri-La.

More than 100,000 Bhutan-ese of ethnic Nepali origin have been forced out by a government keen to retain the country's racial purity. Today they live in refugee camps in Nepal.

Bhutanese smokers have been protesting against the ban, which they say is a gross infringement of their personal rights. They are particularly incensed that proposals to allow strictly controlled smoking areas were rejected in favour of a blanket ban. Now the only legal way to smoke in Bhutan is to travel outside the country and bring your own cigarettes in, and then smoke them inside your own home.

But reports from Bhutan suggest the now two-month-old ban on selling tobacco products has not been entirely successful. Both cigarettes and chewing tobacco, which is more popular in Bhutan, are still readily available under the counter in many shops.

Private traders have also found their own way round the law, importing cigarettes and chewing tobacco from across the border in neighbouring India for "personal use", and then selling them secretly from their apartments at three or four times their original cost.

One recent raid on a private apartment found a stash of 72kg of chewing tobacco, according to Kuensel, Bhutan's only newspaper. The importer, an expatriate worker, managed to escape the police. Shops that have ignored the ban have had their business licenses revoked and been levied fines of about £1,200 - serious money in impoverished Bhutan.

In an absurd coda to the affair, Bhutanese customs officials have got into trouble because of their policy of burning cigarettes and other tobacco products seized from traders. A recent "tobacco control meeting" decided the fumes from burning the contraband were "polluting the air", and ordered that it should be buried instead.

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