World Health Organisation’s South-East Asia report on mental health status of adolescent has found that Bhutan has the highest percentage (29.3) of adolescent tobacco users and also the highest percentage (12) of marijuana users in the region. About 24.2 percent of Bhutanese adolescents drink.

The findings are revealing.

Despite a ban on cultivation, harvest, manufacture, supply, distribution and sale of tobacco products is banned in the country, tobacco use remains high among 13- to 17-year-old, which constitutes 9.4 percent of the total population. This is because although consumption is not prohibited except in areas identified as smoke-free zones. Tobacco products can be imported for personal consumption under a specific import quantity. What this has given rise to is the proliferation of black market and wide availability of tobacco products.

Continued use of drugs, especially controlled substances, can lead to both short- and long-term changes in the brain, which can lead to mental health issues like paranoia, depression, anxiety, aggression and hallucinations, among others. Although reliable mental illness data is hard to come by in this country, not less than 8,000 cases of mental disorders were treated at the referral hospital in Thimphu every year. Going by the available health data, the number has been growing by the year.

Mental illness is fast becoming a public health issue in this country. What is more worrying is that the age of initiation of alcohol and tobacco use is decreasing in the region, posing risk to the health and well-being of the most productive group of the population. As a country with a large number of young people, this fact should worry us and prompt us to earnest actions. If drug and tobacco control is to work, blanket prohibition is not the way. Abuse of controlled substance will succeed only when users decide of their free will to quit the habit and alter their lifestyle.

What this calls for is sustained efforts to wean our young from habits that are hazardous and unhealthy. If this cannot be done, the only option we are left with is to crack down on peddlers and suppliers in the shadows with extended and heavy penalties. Even as we speak, controlled substances are being ferried in across the borders, even through air transport.

Implementation of control – that’s where we are failing.