THIMPHU, BHUTAN — The next time a smoker bemoans the lack of places to light up, tell them it could be worse. They could be living in Bhutan, a landlocked Buddhist kingdom that's aiming to become the world's first tobacco-free nation.
In the capital, Thimphu, nicotine addicts aren't feeling the pinch yet. But elsewhere in the country, smokers are a vanishing breed: 19 of 20 districts have already banned the leaf, often on religious grounds, as Buddhists here consider smoking to be a sin.
Health officials are now laying the groundwork for Thimphu to follow suit next year. If they succeed, it will be illegal to sell tobacco products, and Bhutanese smokers will be fined if caught in public. "It's not just about banning tobacco; we have to provide support services. If people want to give [it] up, we will help them," says Sangay Thinley, secretary of the Ministry of Health.
The antismoking drive is another sign, if one were needed, of how tiny Bhutan ploughs a different course from its Asian neighbors. At the same time, it has sparked a public debate over whether the country's gradual steps toward democracy should mean a more laissez-faire attitude to private vices like smoking. Others ask if alcohol would be a better target, given the dangers of drunk driving on the nation's treacherous mountain roads.
After centuries of isolation, Bhutan began a modernization push in the 1960s that has brought roads, schools, and hospitals to its far-flung mountain valleys. But the country hasn't chased fast-growth development: aid money is carefully allocated or simply refused if projects don't meet national development objectives.
The result is the world's poorest welfare state. Villagers whose rhythms are dictated by subsistence crops and religious ceremonies receive free education and healthcare, including treatment in India and Thailand for illnesses that Thimphu's general hospital can't cure. Abundant hydroelectric power is carried to remote towns free of charge. And landless peasants can petition King Jigme Singye Wangchuck for five acres of vacant land to farm.
Part of the secret lies in Bhutan's diplomatic deference to India, which trains its Army, digs its roads, and helps pay the bills. Bhutan also wins praise for clean government and thrifty policies that have raised living standards without tearing the social fabric that binds its mostly rural population of 700,000 people. In a region where conflict often festers between the cracks in economic growth, Bhutan exhibits an almost holy glow of self-satisfaction that belies its puny per capita income of under $700.
But modern imports, in particular the arrival of television in 1999, have opened the door to new lifestyles. So while some of Bhutan's 2,600 health workers are busy teaching villagers about basic hygiene and nutrition, others are prodding urban folk to put down their remote controls and play sports. Then there's smoking, a social habit that hooks teenagers chasing the cool appeal of Indian TV stars.
Outside the capital, currently in the midst of a construction boom with an eye on Indian and Western tourists, smokers are few and far between. Those who refuse to quit can buy black-market cigarettes from India and smoke at home, though nosy neighbors have reportedly turned informants in some villages.
Health officials point out proudly that duty-free stores at Bhutan's airport and in the capital have stopped selling tobacco products. Smokers say they are forced to buy imported Indian cigarettes that cost more than 100 Indian rupees ($2) for the best brands. "I suppose I agree with the government that cigarettes are harmful, but for me the only effect is that I'm spending more," says a tour guide as he takes a puff in a backstreet bar in Thimphu.
Much of the smoking debate is being conducted in the national newspaper, the Kuensel, and its online forum. Managing editor Kinley Dorji, whose celebrity interviews have included Demi Moore, Mick Jagger, and Uma Thurman (though her father, a Buddhist scholar, is far more famous here) says he's been overwhelmed with mail on the subject.
This, he adds, is exactly what King Wangchuck wants to see: open debate and a willingness to scrutinize government policies. Bhutan is drawing up its first constitution that officials say will pave the way for the formation of political parties and increased public participation in the next few years.
"It's the king who's pushing democracy here," Mr. Dorji explains. "He's always saying that monarchy isn't a good form of government because it's dependent on one person. What Bhutan needs to survive in the future is a system, a strong system."
Not everyone is enamored of democratic reforms, though. Some fear that opening the door to political competition will undercut the nation's communal spirit, not to say its generous welfare handouts. A quick glance at the state of democracy in South Asian neighbors like Nepal, India, and Bangladesh isn't terribly comforting to Bhutanese voters, says Dorji. "We feel quite vulnerable here, tightly wedged between India and China.... We're a small society and we can't afford to be divided."