If you are a non-smoker, you will love Bhutan. If, on the other hand, you are looking to kick the habit, the country is a great place to make a start, enjoying its beautiful air and landscape, whilst finding it difficult to openly smoke almost anywhere.

Health and the environment are taken seriously in Bhutan. In a country where healthcare is free to all and where strong Buddhist traditions prevail, national happiness is the defined goal of the state, and the promotion of health and a sustainable environmental policy are seen as the cornerstone of good governance.

As part of this notion, tobacco smoking in particular is traditionally regarded as a social ill, corrosive of mental and physical health and injurious to spiritual wellbeing.

Bhutan’s negative attitude to smoking long predates the modern global anti-smoking trend, and dates back to the reign of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the nation’s founder, who, in 1651, set up the countries first legal framework, known as the Golden Yoke of Legal Edicts, which included a ban on the use of tobacco in religious and government buildings, based upon Buddhist teachings.

The edicts were further reinforced by a more widespread action contained in the subsequent 1729 tobacco ban, enshrined in an act that also declared that the explicit purpose of government should be the happiness of its people, a commendable view which the other nations of the world, if indeed they ever possessed such a notion, have long since lost.

Although the ban remained in force throughout early Bhutanese history, the militarily enforced colonial influence of the British from 1772 led to the widespread trading of tobacco in the kingdom. By the early twentieth century, the ban was no longer widely enforced, and smoking had become a feature of Bhutanese life.

While other countries are now increasingly banning smoking in public places, Bhutan was the first country in the modern world to wholly outlaw the sale of tobacco products, a law it first introduced in 2004 and reinforced in 2010, which additionally outlaws, the cultivation or supply of tobacco.

Bhutanese smokers are permitted to smoke in their own homes, but are restricted to importing only 300 cigarettes a month, upon which they additionally have to pay 100% tax to bring their supply into the country. Bhutan’s smokers additionally need to purchase a monthly license to enable them to legally import tobacco products and smoke.

In response to the predictable subsequent increase in smuggling, a harsh penalty of three to five years of imprisonment was introduced.

From a visitor perspective, if you are a smoker, you will need to bring your own smoking materials, as you will not be able to acquire these legally during your stay. Tobacco import is restricted to either 250g of tobacco, 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars, for which you must produce a receipt of origin to enable you to bring them into the country. You will also have to pay a 200% import duty.

You will need to keep your tobacco receipt with you during your travels, as you may be challenged by the authorities if you are found smoking.

The act of smoking is not in itself illegal, but is only allowed in a very limited number of public spaces and, at the discretion of owners, hotels can permit smoking rooms or smoking floors providing these are outwith general public areas. Smoking in a non designated public space is subject to hefty fines.

Needless to say, resentment against Bhutan’s tobacco laws are widespread amongst the country’s smokers, particularly the young, who, despite the potentially serious repercussions, often flout the law at discotheques and clubs.

How sustainable the anti-smoking laws in Bhutan will be remains to be seen, but there are many other emerging health and social challenges for the government as alcohol and other drug abuse, with their inescapable links to crime become more widespread in Bhutan.

As Bhutan cautiously enters the modern world, it is refreshing that it is thus far proving sincere to its goal of furthering the welfare of its people, whilst maintaining its environment, history and traditions, and wishes to avoid the mistakes made by other countries who have become wealthy largely by the sacrifice of their wildlife, welfare of their peoples and traditional way of life.