In downtown Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, Sonam Dema - who requested her real name not be used - owns a small corner shop in a quiet alleyway. Packaged food, drinks, confectionaries and pastries are on display. On a busy afternoon, a Bhutanese man walks into the shop and orders cigarettes in a hushed tone. Dema looks around cautiously. She leans down to her handbag and pulls out a pack of 10 cigarettes. "One hundred ngultrum (about $1.87)," Dema says.
The transaction happens under the counter. The buyer slides the pack of cigarettes under his jacket and leaves in no time. "It’s illegal to sell cigarettes here. I don’t sell them to anyone I don’t know," Dema says after her customer leaves.
Bhutan, a small Himalayan nation often called the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is the only country in the world that completely bans the sale and production of tobacco and tobacco products. Under the law, any individual found selling tobacco can face imprisonment for a period of three to five years.
But the youngster confesses that she is only doing it for financial reasons. "Look at everything in the store. Cigarettes bring more profit than anything else. I have to pay rent for this place and if I stop selling cigarettes my profits will plummet," she says.
Bhutan, with a population of 700,000, has used an index called "Gross National Happiness" as a measure of progress. The government emphasises improving people’s happiness while relying on four pillars of development - good governance, natural environment, sustainable growth and cultural values.
The Himalayan nation has a long history of tobacco control. In 1729, it perhaps became the first country in the world to have any kind of tobacco regulation, when the supreme leader Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal passed a law against tobacco use.
"I can’t afford to pay the fine. And I don’t want to pay import duties either. Why can’t I smoke cigarettes at a normal price if I am not selling them to anyone else"
- Tsering Zam
In the 1990s, many of the 20 districts of Bhutan began autonomously declaring themselves smoke-free zones. By 2004, the national assembly of Bhutan (which was then a monarchy), banned the sale of tobacco throughout the country as well as smoking in public places, private offices and even recreation centres like bars and pubs. It was lauded for being the first country in the world to go entirely smoke-free.
However, the implementation of the ban remained weak. As a response, the government passed the Tobacco Control Act in 2010, under which smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco became a non-bailable offence. Anybody in possession of tobacco could be imprisoned for a minimum of three years if the person is unable to produce a receipt declaring payment of import duties for the products.
Last year, more than 80 people were booked under the new law and nearly half of them were sent to prison. The first one to be imprisoned was Sonam Tshering, a Buddhist monk, who was caught with 180 grams of chewing tobacco worth 120 ngultrum (about $2.25).
This resulted in a public outcry, and a Facebook group was created called "Amend the Tobacco Control Act". The group had over 2,900 members, and was the first show of dissent in a country that adopted democracy in 2008 after 100 years of absolute monarchy.
Tashi Dorji, who participated in the online protest, says the law took away his individual right as a smoker. "Putting people behind bars for smoking or chewing tobacco is a violation of their rights. The other crimes that get a similar three-year sentence are human trafficking, abduction, rape, arson, robbery, impersonating a uniformed personnel, torture, and riot. What are we trying to say here?"
Under public pressure, the parliament amended the act and passed the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Act in January 2012. The amended Act has increased the permissible amounts of tobacco that can be imported for personal consumption. One can now import 300 cigarettes, 400 bidis, 50 cigars and 250 grams of other tobacco products. However, one has to produce receipts for import duties if caught with these products or face hefty fines.
On a bus from the border town of Phuntsholing to the capital Thimphu, Tsering Zam - who requested his name not be used - is nervous. She has purchased three packs of cigarettes without paying import duties.
At the check post, two Bhutanese police personnel enter the bus and check suspicious-looking luggage. Zam pretends to be asleep throughout the checking. If caught, she could end up paying a fine of up to 10,000 ngultrum ($187).
Once past the check post, she opens her eyes and breathes a sigh of relief at not being caught. "I can’t afford to pay the fine. And I don’t want to pay import duties either. Why can’t I smoke cigarettes at a normal price if I am not selling them to anyone else?" she asks angrily.
| Monk Karma believes smoking brings bad karmic consequences
[Gayatri Parameswaran / Al Jazeera]
Zam isn’t the only one displeased. The amended act has many critics. Tshering Tobgay, leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, is vocal about his opposition to the original law as well as its amended version.
On his blog "Opposition Bhutan", the non-smoker says, "First, the amendment, like the existing Act, continues to allow people to legally import tobacco. Travellers, and those fortunate to live in bordering towns, can continue to legally import tobacco up to the 'permissible quantity'. The way I see it, if we’re going to allow some people to purchase and consume tobacco legally, we should allow other people to do so too."
The strict laws have given rise to a thriving black market. Most sellers get their supplies of cigarettes and chewing tobacco twice a week from a "dealer", who usually smuggles in the products across the border from India.
Sonam Tshering is a legal officer at the Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency (BNCA) which is responsible for implementing the amended Act. He defends the law: "It’s proven that consuming tobacco isn’t good for your health. We are making it more and more difficult for smokers to get hold of cigarettes. We are a country that lives by the principles of Gross National Happiness and we believe good health is integral to a citizen."
"I don’t support the criminalisation of smokers, but I am proud that the laws here have made it more difficult to access cigarettes. Especially for young children"
- Tenzing Lamzang
The 28-year-old acknowledges that he has no facts or figures to prove the campaign’s success. But, he adds, "I don’t think there is a huge black market. And the ones who are selling illegally do get caught. Let me ask you something, when you walk in Thimphu, do you see anyone smoking? No? That means we are on the right way to making Bhutan smoke-free," he says.
Tenzing Lamzang is a proud Bhutanese non-smoker. He tried smoking once when he was young, but hated it so much that never lighted another cigarette. "I don’t support the criminalisation of smokers, but I am proud that the laws here have made it more difficult to access cigarettes. Especially for young children."
And it is not only the health concern that holds Bhutanese non-smokers from puffing away - it’s also a social and religious taboo.
Monk Karma (who goes by one name), explains that smoking can have bad karmic consequences. "We believe that even if you touch a cigarette to your lips, it can be harmful for your karma. Guru Rimpoche, our religious leader, strictly denounces smoking," he says.
The monk, who studied at Tamshing Dratshang monastery in central Bhutan, also narrates a legend behind Buddhism’s non-smoking history. "There was a demon who fought with Guru Rimpoche and then cursed the land where his blood was spilled. He said that anything that grows on this land will only destroy those who consume it. Tobacco grew out of that land," Karma explains.
However, the legal, social and religious taboos still don’t stop persistent smokers from lighting up. On a Saturday night in downtown Thimphu, youngsters are partying at a popular club. The dance floor, the rest rooms and the lobbies are filled with smoke. Having had a few drinks, a girl puffs away her cigarette and says, "Who cares about the rules and laws as long as they don’t bother me?"