© iStockphoto
A Buddhist monk could face five years in prison after becoming the first casualty of a stringent anti-smoking law in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which vows to become the first smoke-free nation.

The monk has been charged with consuming and smuggling contraband tobacco under a law that came into force this month, the newspaper Kuensel reported Friday, having been caught in possession of 72 packets of chewing tobacco.

Bhutan, where smoking is considered bad for one's karma, banned the sale of tobacco in 2005. But with a thriving smuggling operation from neighboring India, the ban failed to make much of an impact.

The new law has granted police powers to enter homes, threatening jail for shopkeepers selling tobacco and smokers who fail to provide customs receipts for imported cigarettes.

"He can be charged with smuggling of controlled substances, which is a fourth degree felony," a police official from the Narcotic Drug and Law enforcement Unit of Bhutan, who did not want to be identified, told the Bhutan Today newspaper.

A fourth degree felony can carry a sentence of five years.

Smoking in private is not illegal, 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. They must provide a customs receipt when challenged by police.

A student at a 400-year-old monastic school, the monk has not been publicly identified. He bought the tobacco from the Indian border town of Jaigoan, 170 km (110 miles) south of the capital Thimphu and said it was for personal use.

The 24-year-old said he was unaware of the new law, according to local media. He was carrying no tax receipt from the customs department.

Bhutanese have been compliant with the new laws amid much grumbling. The legislation has hit the formerly thriving black market for tobacco products, as it is now cheaper to pay taxes and obtain a receipt than to pay black market prices.

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 a sniffer dog.

Editing by Matthias Williams and Ron Popeski