Smoke-Free at the Top of the World
If your nicotine patch isn't cooling your ardor for cigarettes or you're tired of smelling stale tobacco smoke in rental cars, there's a spot at the top of the world for you. Bhutan, already one of the world's most beautiful places, is the first country in the world to institute a complete ban on smoking.
Reaching 24,500 feet high in the Himalayas, the Kingdom of Bhutan was almost completely isolated until 40 years ago, with no roads, schools, electricity, phones, radios, or cars. Since then, this Switzerland-size country has stepped gingerly into the modern world, restricting tourists and fiercely protecting the nation's environmental and cultural purity. Bhutan's determination to choose its own path into the modern world has won it recognition as a model of sustainable development and healthcare-including its no-thank-you to smoking.
The religious and cultural biases against tobacco use have made it easier for the popular King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, a graduate of Oxford University, to institute a total tobacco ban. With 20 percent of the government budget devoted to health and education, information about the dangers of smoking has had a wide impact despite the challenge of reaching an overwhelmingly rural population.
Still, there are problems. Though it is estimated that only 1 percent of the Bhutanese population smokes, respiratory illnesses are the primary cause of mortality in the country, where life expectancy for men is 61 and women is 64. And more than 25 percent of the world's smokers live right next door, in China.
Bhutan made a pre-emptive strike with 200 percent customs duties, a tax on tobacco sales, and a $232 fine-more than two months' salary here-for smoking in public. And criminal charges can be brought against foreigners who sell tobacco to Bhutanese.
The smoking ban is part of the king's plan for "gross national happiness," which he says is more important than the gross national product.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.