Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » January 2005 » Speaking of Bhutan recently....

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01/21/2005: Speaking of Bhutan recently....

Brock, in his first Obscure Country of the Week profile, mentioned that Bhutan was the first nation to go smoke free by decree, banning the sale of tobacco in the kingdom. For those of you who may be fascinated by such social experimentation, there's a profile in yesterday's Slate which discusses the impact of the ban on the kingdom:

If you're indignant that your boss just shut the smoking room and outraged that you have to leave the bar to light up, take heart. Life could be worse. You could be Bhutanese.

The tiny, trendy Himalayan kingdom recently became the world's first nonsmoking nation. Since Dec. 17, it has been illegal to smoke in public or sell tobacco. Violators are fined the equivalent of $232—more than two months' salary in Bhutan. Authorities heralded the ban by igniting a bonfire of cigarette cartons in the capital, Thimphu, and stringing banners across the main thoroughfare, exhorting people to kick the habit. As if they have a choice.

Meddling with an issue as personal as smoking is always tricky, and politicians err at their own peril. Yet Bhutan's ban appears to be sticking and with little public outcry. Even the country's smokers seem resigned to a smoke-free future. "If you can't get it, you can't smoke it," concludes Tshewang Dendup, who works for Bhutan's only broadcaster. He picked up his smoking habit while studying at Berkeley, but says he is now rapidly "downsizing" his consumption.

So, how has Bhutan managed to pull off a nationwide smoking ban while other nations dither? Bhutan is a Buddhist nation, and many Buddhists believe smoking is bad for their karma. Then again, Sri Lanka and Thailand are also predominantly Buddhist, and plenty of people smoke there.

The answer lies not in Bhutan's religion but in its famous quirkiness. This is a country that has elevated contrariness to a national trait. Convention says an impoverished yet stunningly beautiful nation like Bhutan should welcome tourists with open arms—and count the dollars. Yet Bhutan restricts the number of foreign tourists (about 9,000 last year) and charges fees of $200 per day. Convention says that gross national product is the best measure of national progress. Yet Bhutan is aiming for another mark: What it calls "gross national happiness." If Bhutan were a celebrity, it would be Johnny Depp—reclusive, a bit odd, but endearing nonetheless.

Len on 01.21.05 @ 07:39 AM CST

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