THIMPU, Bhutan (Reuters Life!) - Bhutan police can raid homes of smokers in a search for contraband tobacco and are training a special tobacco sniffer dog in a crackdown to honor a promise to become the world's first smoke-free nation.
Buddhist Bhutan, where smoking is considered bad for one's karma, banned the sale of tobacco in 2005, but with a thriving tobacco smuggling operation from neighboring India, the ban failed to make much of an impact.
But legislation passed in the new year, granting police powers to enter homes, is set to stub out the habit, threatening five years in jail for shopkeepers selling tobacco and smokers who fail to provide customs receipts for imported cigarettes.
Smoking in private is not illegal in the Himalayan kingdom, but as the sale of cigarettes is banned, smokers are restricted to 200 cigarettes or 150 grams of other tobacco products a month that can be legally imported. And they must provide a customs receipt when challenged by police.
The Bhutan Narcotic Control Agency has started raids, with officials allowed to enter homes if someone is seen smoking or if officials have reason to believe there is illegal tobacco there.
There has been widespread grumbling about the new rule.
"When it comes to the penalties in the tobacco control act, it is, in every sense of the word, draconian," the country's largest selling newspaper, Kuensel, said in an editorial.
The Tobacco Act was passed in a joint sitting of parliament, with opposition from only four of the 65 voting members.
"It's a new year. And I have a new year's wish: that the first person to be caught and jailed under the Tobacco Control Act is a member of parliament," opposition leader Tshering Tobgay wrote on his popular blog.
Illegal cigarette sales - previously a major source of income for small shops - have almost stopped as shopkeepers say it will be difficult to hide tobacco from the sniffer dog.
"The sniffer dog is being trained at the moment. The dog will be able to sniff out tobacco products," said Major Phub Gyaltshen of the Royal Bhutan Police.
Bhutan's prime minister said the law cannot be called draconian and it was passed in the "collective wisdom" of the members of parliament.
"It is cancerous, both in the literal and the metaphoric sense, cancerous to society and to individual and in many ways it is no different from psychotropic drugs, for which the penalty in certain countries is death," Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley said.
Writing by Henry Foy; Editing by Robert Birsel