• SHARE

The news out of the Himalayas last week was all about Nepal, where King Gyanendra on Tuesday dissolved the government and proclaimed a state of emergency. (The move was billed as an attempt to end an intractable Maoist insurgency; observers predict it will only feed the flames.) But if you think Nepal is going through interesting times, consider what has been happening in nearby Bhutan. Determined to stamp out sparks of a different kind, the Bhutanese National Assembly in December made the tiny mountain kingdom the first nation in the world to ban tobacco sales and public smoking outright.

King Gyanendra may have his hands full placating murderous rebels and appalled critics, but Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has problems, too. “This ban has already forced me to cut down on my smoking, and now I am even thinking of giving it up altogether,” he told reporters last month. (You have to admire the man for his civic docility, given the example of kingly arrogance being set elsewhere in the neighborhood.)

Two countries, two drastic steps. But while Nepal’s case may seem more momentous, Bhutan’s law raises knotty questions.

The world gasped last week when King Gyanendra thumbed his nose at Nepal’s constitution — the U.S. Embassy in Katmandu called it an “apparent setback for democracy” — but in truth such events are a familiar story in that troubled country. The king had already set democracy back when he dissolved a previous government in 2002.

Bhutan’s antismoking experiment, by contrast, is truly new. The kingdom put itself in the vanguard of progressive political philosophy in 1972 when it became the only country on the planet to measure prosperity in terms of gross national happiness rather than gross national product. Now this law puts it on the cutting edge in the sphere of social control.

Look at the sweep of the new rules: Residents and visitors can buy tobacco products only from abroad and must pay a 200 percent duty on every item imported. Moreover, they can smoke what they do bring in only in their own homes or hotel rooms.

It is this absolutist, prohibition-type approach that sets Bhutan’s legislation apart from antismoking laws enacted anywhere else. And there have been plenty. Last month, a ban on smoking in nearly all enclosed public spaces took effect in Italy. Ireland instituted a ban on smoking in workplaces, pubs, bars and restaurants last March, and several U.S. states, including Florida and California, enacted similar bans in 2003, as did the cities of Boston and New York. In May, India banned smoking in public places, tobacco advertisements in the media and sales to minors.

Last month, Hong Kong announced plans to extend a ban on smoking in movie theaters, shopping malls, supermarkets and department stores to all restaurants, bars, schools and offices (but not to bathhouses and mahjong parlors, because of “privacy and enforceability considerations”). Scotland, Russia and New Zealand have all proposed, instituted or expanded similar restrictions. The trend toward shrinking smoking space and the tobacco companies’ advertising reach is clear.

No one but Bhutan, however, appears to have even considered banning sales. The question hangs in the air like a smoke ring: Is such a ban a good idea or a bad one? Would it be something a smoker’s paradise like Japan should think of emulating?

Contemplating the haze, the smell and the public-health toll generated by tobacco, one can only say yes, of course it should. Yet aesthetics and health are not the only issues. As Hong Kong officials realized, “privacy and enforceability” are serious considerations, too, particularly if “privacy” is interpreted as covering “personal choice.” Few argue any longer that smoking is a good choice. Many, however, argue that there are, or should be, limits to government’s power to stop people from making bad choices when they are the only ones affected by them. Thus, bans on smoking in restaurants and tobacco advertisements targeting youth are defensible. But a sales ban? Maybe not.

Bhutan, of course, is not Japan. For one thing, it has a more muscular and homogenous religious tradition, which has aided acceptance of the total ban. Officials say the gradually phased-in restrictions have succeeded largely because smoking was depicted as un-Buddhist as well as unhealthy. But even in Bhutan, there has been dissent, especially in the youth-thronged capital, Thimpu. Back before the prohibitions went nationwide, a 19-year-old Bhutanese in a smoky nightclub in the city complained to a foreign reporter: “Nobody can tell me not to smoke. It is my right to do what I want.”

In Japan, as in Bhutan, such an assertive, skeptical young man is someone to value, not repress. Why ensure, with government prohibitions, that he will have a cigarette in his hand?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW