Be happy, no butts, Bhutan's smokers told

Parliamentary opposition leader Tshering Tobgay has also been a vociferous critic.

Faced with hostile media coverage and public dissent - unheard of in Bhutan during the days of absolute monarchy which came to an end in 2008 - new guidelines have been brought in recommending fines for small-time users.

Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley admitted to AFP in an interview that the law imposed "excessive punishment" on those caught in possession of small quantities of tobacco and this would be reviewed later this year.

"I don't think we have the right balance," he said in his office. "I am hoping that we will be able to make amendments... The kind of punishment is something that I think needs to be looked at."

The government argues, however, that the law will ease the tobacco-related burden on the country's free healthcare system and ultimately help users, many of whom confess to wanting to give up anyway.

Supporters point to World Health Organisation data that show six million people die annually from tobacco, with 80 percent of those deaths in developing countries like Bhutan.

So has the country famed for seeking "Gross National Happiness" for its citizens instead of pure economic development, been successful in restricting tobacco use?

A survey in 2009 funded by international anti-tobacco groups found that just 2.8 percent of people smoked in Bhutan, compared to 31.4 percent in China.

But after dark in the capital, Bhutanese of all ages can be found defying "No Smoking" signs in the back-street bars of the capital.

Glowing red embers are a frequent sight down the alleyways leading from the main streets, and smokers can be seen indulging at nightclubs and at the city's only bowling alley.

Most say they buy their cigarettes off black market vendors.

"I can go anywhere and get cigarettes, but the cost has really gone up," says Gyeltshen, who jointly set up the "Amend the Tobacco Control Act" Facebook group which has more than 2,600 members.

In some areas, however, the law appears to be having an effect.

The Bhutan Today newspaper reported that construction companies have complained to the government because their Indian labourers are deserting because they can't live without tobacco.

Dorji from the Bhutan Narcotic Control Agency says that his organisation, working with the police and customs, has been "very successful" in controlling tobacco use.

"There may be a black market, but the fact is that it has been reduced a lot," he says.

The agency's legal officer Sonam Tshering defends restricting a habit seen as "un-Bhutanese" in this fiercely proud country, but he admits they will never be able to completely stop contraband.

"In Singapore, for example, they have the death sentence for drug trafficking, but there are still cases there. People still take the risk."

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