Inhale, Exhale: secrecy, discontent and growth through Bhutan’s tobacco culture

As part of our experience in Bhutan, we are expected to take field notes and reflect on any aspect of Bhutanese society. I thought I would share one with you.


“Cigarettes?” my friend Sonam* looked at me, eyes widening. We were in a bowling ally, three lanes in all, with holiday lights and blacklights spread throughout. Western hip hop and pop was playing loudly through several large speakers. To our left was a group of many younger Bhutanese, drinking beers and becoming progressively louder as the night went on. Almost at the end of our game, the lane we were playing on stopped functioning. This is when I approached Sonam.

“You want cigarettes?” he responded. “Yes.” I hadn’t asked him for cigarettes before, but he nodded and led me toward the exit of the bowling club. As we were walking I noticed a Bhutanese restaurant on our left, and a vacant bar on our right. Further ahead were the restrooms, out of which I could here men’s voices. We proceeded to up the stairs into the lobby of a shopping complex, the sounds of the bowling ally diminishing all but for the deep bass of the music.

Outside there was little traffic, and few of the street vendors were open. We approached one shop and Sonam spoke to the shopkeeper in Dzongkha. He turned to me and told me they weren’t selling any cigarettes. Following him across the empty street, we search for another shop. We neared one of the shops that was still open. I stayed behind, just out of sight, having been told that some vendors don’t sell cigarettes to foreigners. Moments later my friend looked back. I stepped closer.

Only about eight feet wide and six feet in depth, the shop was packed with goods. There were snacks lined atop the counter which surrounded the shopkeeper. Hanging from the ceiling were many toys—guns, rubber balls, stuffed animals, etc. Along the wall were several shelves stacked with instant soups, soaps, crackers and some other packed foods. A middle-aged woman was sitting behind the counter, speaking Dzongkha in a hushed voice to my friend. She looked briefly at me. “She has for 200 bucks… or for 150 bucks,” he said to me, and said something in Dzongkha to the woman. “That’s fine,” I replied, and the shopkeeper took out a small cardboard box, not bigger than a shoebox. Inside were an assortment of cigarette packs. She placed the package on some of the snacks.

Shortly after my purchase we returned to the bowling ally. I went to another friend and invited him for a cigarette. Together we walked toward the men’s bathrooms, out of which came men’s voices. Someone stepped out, and we could see into the bathroom. At the far end was a toilet stall, a urinal, and two sinks that were closer to us. About four men stood inside the bathroom. It smelled heavily of cigarette smoke and urine. They all shuffled out, and the last man said, in broken English, “they smoke in my bathroom and there’s too much smoke!”

Once they had gone, my friend and I walked into the stall and locked it after us. Water and other liquids were on the floor, accompanied by cigarette buds and pieces of tissue. Inside the toilet were a few ashes and buds. I opened my pack and we had a smoke. I briefly thought of what else, besides tobacco, I was inhaling.

*Sonam=anonymous male friend


Smoking tobacco in Bhutan, as elsewhere, is a social activity. But unlike in the rest of the world, one requires a license to smoke, and without it smoking is illegal. In the bowling ally we see the dynamics in which smoking often occurs. Outside, in the “public” area or the bowling ally, people socialize but do not smoke. If they want to smoke, they must then proceed to the “private” area, or the bathroom. This practice is so common that most bathrooms I have been to carry some evidence of being a smoking room, such as cigarette buds or the scent of tobacco. Only a few bathrooms are the exception, usually in “higher class” venues, such as Karma Cafe, Klein Cafe or The Zone. I presume these areas are relatively smoke free because most of the Bhutanese population cannot easily access them.

Buying cigarettes must be done as a clandestine activity. Shopkeepers are concerned for their own well being, and will therefore not sell to anyone they suspect may be caught or vocal about their tobacco source. This is evidenced by the expectation that I—the foreigner—stay back until the appropriate time. My friend Sonam knew he was the best person to request for the cigarettes, for he could do so without arousing suspicion. Once I approached, the shopkeeper did not appear suspicious but continued to speak to Sonam in Dzonkgha, bringing out the box of cigarettes to show us.

Shopkeepers continue to sell cigarettes despite the fear it generates. This must be out of a desire to maintain a competitive edge over the other vendors, as legal competition must be difficult with the given conditions. What strikes me is that the majority of shops carry the same exact goods—imported from India and Thailand—indicating that there is a limited number of suppliers. It’s difficult to imagine that shopkeepers can compete with each other over any profit margin, when suppliers are limited and, presumably, the price of goods are similar. To earn profit, shopkeepers must find a way to reduce their costs or provide a good that is not amply supplied to meet the society’s demand. With the restrictions on tobacco sales, the demand for cigarettes is high but the supply low. Those shopkeepers brave enough to sell cigarettes can benefit from this supply gap.

My visit to the men’s room for a smoke speaks to the paradoxical nature of tobacco use in Bhutan. While most are restricted from smoking cigarettes, smoking is very popular and is driven into the “private” areas. And further, while the ban may be in the name of health, the conditions by which individuals are forced to smoke in are extremely unhygienic, with urine, feces and cigarettes littering the bathrooms. The Bhutanese are not very fond of the ban. Everyone is aware that people smoke, regardless of the ban, and they also know where to smoke. If the police were interested in enforcing the ban, they would enter bathrooms and arrest the smokers. But this is unheard of, indicating that the police themselves recognize the flaw in the tobacco ban. The smoking ban is even more ironic.

In an emerging democracy, I have found that the smoking ban arouses the most discontent in the Bhutanese. While it seems that most are submissive or supportive of government policy, this is the one instance where individuals are vocal about their discontent. I hope that through challenging this ban, Bhutanese will learn the appropriate means and discourse to use in the public or political sphere. Learning to express discontent is skill, one that greatly differs from simply being discontent. But most Bhutanese, I suspect, will not be engaged in learning this lesson. They will instead undergo a different lesson: that their feelings and opinions of discontent can be represented in higher levels of discourse. They can being supporting representatives in government who actually represent their opinion. Perhaps then, if equipped with the skills and confidence, they may come to see themselves as agents of social and political change.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: