Buddhist Bhutan aims to be first country to ban smoking

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More than three centuries have elapsed since the founder of modern Bhutan, the warrior-monk Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, introduced the first ban on smoking in public.

More than three centuries have elapsed since the founder of modern Bhutan, the warrior-monk Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, introduced the first ban on smoking in public.

Now his initiative is finally nearing fruition. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan hopes to become the first country to outlaw the habit. It has already banned tobacco sales in 18 of its 20 districts but not in the capital, Thimphu.

Government officials fear that smoking is increasing, threatening the health of a nation where male life expectancy is a worryingly low 62. So it is preparing to make the ban complete by the end of the year. Bhutan only began opening its doors to the outside world, and then with extreme caution, in the 1970s. Until recently, television was unavailable. Anyone accused of a crime is likely to have to answer to the village headman, armed with a legal code that dates back to the 17th century. Traditional national dress is compulsory in government buildings and for public ceremonies. Tourism has been restricted to tiny numbers in an attempt to keep out foreign influences and tight restrictions remain on the media.

But there are fears in ruling circles that young people, some of whom watch satellite television, are adopting the West's worst habits, including smoking. Official worries not only focus on tobacco. It also appears to have dawned on the people of Bhutan that there may be uses other than as pig fodder for the cannabis that grows freely in its hills.

The governmentof King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the "Dragon King", an ascetic who prefers to conduct business from a log cabin rather than a palace, says smoking contravenes Buddhism.

Gado Tshering, director of the health department, said: "We consider smoking a sin in our religion. Monks and religious people will never smoke."

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