Bhutan Leads the Way

22 November 2004

Bhutan Leads the Way

By Gwynne Dyer

Somebody had to lead the way, but who would have thought that it would be Bhutan? Last week, the tiny Himalayan kingdom became the first country to ban smoking altogether: indoors, outdoors, on mountain-tops, in the out-house, everywhere. It is now illegal to sell tobacco in any form in Bhutan: individuals caught doing so will pay a $210 fine (two or three months’ wages for the average Bhutanese), and businesses will lose their licences. But you KNOW that what the Bhutanese government has just created is a smuggling industry.

The government know it, too. “If any foreigner is caught selling tobacco products to Bhutanese nationals, he will be charged with smuggling,” Karma Tshering of the Bhutanese customs told the British Broadcasting Corporation just after the ban went into effect. “Tobacco will be treated as contraband.” Like alcohol during the Prohibition era in the United States, or like “drugs” during the current wave of moral panic in the world.

Bhutan’s tiny underworld will start to grow and get rich off the tobacco ban this week, but it will be some time before outright bans on tobacco in bigger countries create the kind of global bonanza for criminals that the alcohol and “drug” bans did. Smoking bans are probably coming too, however: the pattern of agitation by groups who claim to be concerned about health risks, but who are really driven by intolerance for self-destructive behaviour in others, is exactly the same this time.

It is true that smoking tobacco is a bigger health risk than consuming “drugs” (including the so-called “hard drugs” like heroin). It’s even greater than the health risk involved in drinking alcohol. But it very rarely hurts anybody except the user, so why is it anybody else’s business?

In public spaces that must be shared, it is everybody’s business: non-smokers have a right not to be annoyed by other people’s smoke. But to extend that ban to ALL indoor public spaces including bars that wish to cater only to smokers and their consenting friends, as New York City did last year, Ireland did this year, and even Poland will probably be doing in five years’ time — the Californification of the planet marches relentlessly eastwards — is simply intolerance fuelled by ideology.

It’s a relatively small act of intolerance, but more will follow. The Bhutanese, being a bit out of the mainstream, have misread the cultural signals and jumped the gun, but absolute bans on tobacco use even in private are probably no more than five or ten years away in some major jurisdictions. That will, of course, create the same pattern of organised crime and the same huge illegal cash flow that previous bans on alcohol and “drugs” did. Why would it be any different this time?

Organised crime has grown to its present impressive scale almost entirely by providing goods and services that large numbers of people want, but that local laws forbid: gambling, prostitution, alcohol, and narcotic and psychedelic drugs. This is quite clear to everybody in the business: the Colombian cartels would no more vote for the legalisation of cocaine today than Al Capone would have voted for the end of alcohol Prohibition in the America of the 1930s. And in due course, there will be a new mafia that specialises in the supply of illegal tobacco.

The proportion of persistent smokers in the populations of developed countries will probably stabilise in the end in the same ten-to-fifteen percent range as the number of regular “drug” users in those societies whether or not there is an outright ban on tobacco. Smoking rates have been dropping steadily for decades now due to medical fears and social pressures, but an irreducible residue of hopeless addicts and determined rebels will remain in every country no matter what is done. The temptation will be to punish them for their persistence and rationalise it as being “for their own good.” It is a temptation that should be resisted.

More lives would undoubtedly be saved by an outright ban on smoking than would be lost to its side-effects, like an upsurge in organised crime. Smoking really does kill people, though not nearly so many as the anti-smoking crusaders claim (and the “evidence” for the damage allegedly done to the health of non-smokers by “passive smoking” has been shamelessly inflated or simply contrived). The point is that we should not be using the law to regulate or punish personal behaviour if it does not harm other people.

Preventable deaths happen because of smoking, but so also do they happen because of speeding — yet we are not going to fit devices restricting all cars to 60 mph (90 kph). Societies that have a long cultural commitment to alcohol are probably not going to ban it again, even though alcohol abuse is involved in a large proportion of the cases of domestic violence, street violence, and accidental deaths in those societies. And we are certainly not going to ban junk foods, even though obesity is a rapidly growing phenomenon that significantly shortens people’s lives..

Neither what we ban or what we permit, in other words, is decided on a rational basis. It is driven by social panic and moralistic propaganda, modified to some extent by traditional prejudices, and decided almost entirely without regard to the real consequences. Tobacco is now shifting into the category of things that may be banned, and in time it will be banned outright in many places. Regardless of the damage done.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Organised…tobacco”;and “More…people”)