This week in 2010, Bhutan became the first country in recent history to totally ban tobacco. Bhutan doesn’t shape its economy to try to produce the largest gross national product: it aims instead at Gross National Happiness. It’s one of the few countries that colonialists never invaded, and has quite consciously rejected Western values in favour of its traditional Buddhist ones: psychological, sociological, philosophical and even economic.
In short, if you’re going to be setting things on fire in Bhutan, you’re more likely to be lighting a stick of incense and chanting refuge in the Buddha than spluttering through a Marlboro Red while downing cheap Indian beer on your definitely-not-neo-colonialist Grand Tour to Goa and Thailand. Buddhists of all denominations chant the advice every morning to ‘avoid taking anything that causes intoxication or heedlessness’. This is less from a position of dogmatic rule-keeping and more from the angle of trying to help you keep your mind clear: the logic is that taking intoxicants as part of your pursuit of happiness and fun just won’t lead to as happy a life as you could have, and that a calm, aware mind is more likely to help you make others’ lives happier too.
The distinction we make between stimulant and intoxicant isn’t quite drawn in the same way. More importantly, tobacco is associated with the general, you know, moral degeneracy and capitalist total lack of concern for others that constitute a certain stereotype of the West. Many Buddhist countries are extremely keen on that dangerous stimulant tea, for example, whether it’s drunk Western style but with powdered milk as in Sri Lanka, fermented and eaten as leaves in Burma or stirred up with Shinto ceremony in Japan.
Tobacco is obviously horrendous for your health. In the UK, the tobacco industry in fact gains more revenue for the state than it takes it away in healthcare costs: there is no real financial motive to reduce its massive, though undeniably harmful, popularity. Compassion-based politics, like the Bhutanese option, offers a very attractive alternative. One factor of Gross National Happiness is sustainable development. You don’t even have to be anti-growth, like the Green Party, to base your whole socioeconomic mindset on something far more human and intuitive than ‘Let’s just make as much money as we can’.