Dec. 17: Bhutan today became the first country in the world to ban tobacco sales as well as smoking in public.
'A total ban on the sale and smoking of tobacco has been imposed in the country from December 17,' said Lily Wangchuk, a spokesperson at Bhutan's embassy in Delhi. 'It is for the well-being of the people, to protect the environment and preserve our culture.'
The unique experiment follows a decision by Bhutan's national legislature in July to curb smoking to promote national well-being.
The country's trade and industry ministry had issued a notification giving shops, hotels, restaurants and bars time till today to dispose of tobacco stocks.
The notice extended the ban, enforced in several places in the country since summer, to the capital Thimpu and the rest of the country. Some countries, including India, have officially banned smoking in public but this is the first time tobacco sales have been targeted.
People who cannot kick the habit can import tobacco for personal use, but at a 100 per cent tax sales tax and a 100 per cent customs duty, and can only smoke indoors in the privacy of their homes. Imports from India will be levied only the sales tax because of a free trade agreement.
Shops and businesses defying the ban face fines starting at $225, a steep amount in a country where the poverty line is set at an income of $16. Repeat violators would risk losing commercial licences.
Bhutanese officials said only an estimated 1 per cent of the country's 700,000 people smoke or use tobacco. The loss to tobacco businesses was not immediately known.
The Himalayan kingdom is governed by a monarchy that believes in tight controls. Home to breathtaking mountains and scenic valleys, Bhutan restricts foreign tourists to avoid the erosion of its culture. Television was banned until 1999 for the same reason.
Residents of Phuentsholing, adjoining the Indian border, said paan shops have been hit hard. 'From today, I will be finished,' said Avinash Kumar Bharadwaj, a shopkeeper. Others said the ban would lead to the birth of a black market.
On the Indian side of the border at Jaigaon in north Bengal, tobacco sellers are waiting to make a killing. 'The Bhutanese will definitely come across and buy from us. Our sales will go up,' said Anil Prasad, a paan shop owner.
Indian cigarette maker GTC dubbed the ban too severe and said Indian companies would see lower sales.
'The question is of personal choice,' said J.P. Khetan, the firm's managing director. 'It is not fair, whether it be a ban on tobacco or something else. If I want to smoke, I should be allowed to smoke. The government can take whatever safeguards need to be taken such as on health.'
However, other Indian tobacco companies' officials played down the impact. They said Bhutan markets are mostly flooded with foreign cigarettes.