GAUHATI, India – The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan (search) has gone to extremes to protect its pristine environment, its ancient culture and the well being of its citizens. The country's forests are strictly conserved. Television was banned until a few years ago. And only a few thousand tourists are allowed in each year.
Next month, this idiosyncratic Buddhist nation of 700,000, nicknamed Shangri-La (search), will become the first country in the world to ban all smoking in public and all sales of tobacco.
The royal National Assembly passed a resolution in July to bring about a total ban on tobacco sales across the country and the government has decided to enforce the ban beginning Dec. 17, Lily Wangchuk, a Bhutanese Embassy spokeswoman in New Delhi, told The Associated Press by telephone.
It will be illegal to buy tobacco, sell it or smoke anywhere in public. The fine for breaking the rules: $225 — an enormous sum in an impoverished nation. The World Health Organization's (search) Web site says Bhutan is the first country in the world to enact such legislation.
Individuals will be allowed to bring tobacco into the country for personal consumption, but only after paying 100 percent tax on the cost price. They can smoke it only at home.
But if the new law sounds draconian, it apparently won't affect many.
Kinley Dorji, editor of Bhutan's Kuensel newspaper, said only about 1 percent of the population is thought to smoke.
"The decision to ban tobacco sales may not have any great impact," he said.
Still, plenty of people are upset about it.
"I wish there was a ban on alcohol, which is a more serious problem in Bhutan. Smoking, after all, is a personal habit, and a ban will be difficult to enforce," said a trader who identified himself only as Sonam, speaking by telephone from the town of Samdrup Jhongkar near the Indian border.
Some worry the ban will simply increase smuggling.
Few places are as singular as Bhutan, tucked into the mountains between India and China. There are no political parties, few newspapers and hunting is almost unheard of in the pacifistic monarchy. The country is so resistant to the outside world that it rarely let in a foreigner until recently. Even now only about 6,000 tourists a year are allowed in — and only on carefully supervised tours to protect the environment and ancient culture.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has shepherded the poor but beautiful country gradually toward modernization, cherry picking what he wants from the modern world. He has famously proclaimed "gross national happiness" more important than gross national product.
The environment in Bhutan is fiercely protected. It has some of the strictest rules in the world to protect some of the planet's last great remaining forests. The national assembly declared in 1995 that 60 per cent of the country must be forested, including 26 per cent that is set aside as protected areas.
The Himalayan nation boasts some of the world's most beautiful mountains but climbing is not allowed in order to preserve the forests that cover most of the country.
Such policies earned the country the nickname Shangri-La, the name of the Himalayan utopia invented by James Hilton in his classic 1933 novel "Lost Horizon."
No matter what, change is slowly coming to Bhutan.
In recent years, the king has devolved more powers to his ministers and plans to bring a new Constitution that will place more authority in the hands of people's representatives.
People are increasingly staying up late to watch TV, first introduced only in 1999. And they are "mimicking" fashion, art, and behavior they see on TV, said a February report from the Bhutanese Ministry of Information and Communication.